Davis became a Gurkha officers almost straight out of school in WW2. A Child At Arms should be on reading lists for junior officers and anyone involved in military policy. It compares well to Sydney Jary’s 18 Platoon, which was held up as an excellent example of a platoon commander’s war by the British Army.
A Child At Arms – review
In A Child At Arms Patrick Davis gives a his imperfect memory of his time in the army. Davis came straight out of school into officer training, and volunteered to join the Gurkhas in the Far East. At the age of 19 he joined 4/8th Gurkhas at Kohima just as they were withdrawn to rest.
Davis is very honest in his account. He accepts that memory is imperfect, and even though he kept a journal sporadically during his service he doesn’t recall things he wrote at the time, and other times he has memories that conflict with the notes. This honesty extends to his emotional commentary on how he felt about things.
Serving as the Battalion Intelligence Officer he lead a lot of patrols. He pinpoints the day when he’d finally got beyond what he could cope with and no longer had enthusiasm for taking risks or anything beyond coming back home safely. Despite this he carried on, and went on to become a Company 2ic and then Company Commander just before the end of the war.
The move to the front, and the rebuilding of the battalion is well described, especially the getting to know his Gurkhas and their personalities. Davis gives a good insight into learning Gurkhali and his limitations with it. He also paints a great picture of the men he served with, without presaging their fates.
The patrols, the battles and the country are all written with care. The situations clear, even when confused by the fog if war. Davis gives us only his perspective, he doesn’t try and tell the bits he didn’t see, or can’t remember. There’s just enough context, and a few sketch maps, so that we can follow him through the campaign.
I’ve read many first hand accounts from men that went to war. I don’t recall any being quite this honest, although a few others have mentioned their mental health, not enough do. For that reason alone it should be read widely. On top of that, there aren’t many of these accounts in English from the war in the Far East. So there are more reasons to read it.
I was recommended Dominion by a couple of friends after my review of the TV version of SS-GB. Dominion is a huge tome, it’s 700 pages long, and my first thought was that it probably needed some more editing. However I found it an easy and compelling read. Sansom’s style is more descriptive than others I’ve read, but the extra detail adds to the flavour of the story. The title has multiple interpretations. Britain is a Dominion of nazi Germany, the key protagonist works for the Colonial Office liaising with the Dominions.
Dominion – the review
Dominion takes a far more believable point of departure for its alternate history than SS-GB does. In Dominion Lord Halifax takes over from Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940. Without Churchill the UK also makes peace with Germany in 1940. By the time Dominion is set in 1952 we have a much different Britain, it was never bombed and there is no rationing. Yet we’ve slid into being an authoritarian state with a fascist as Home Secretary in a coalition government. Rigged elections have driven Churchill, Attlee and Bevan underground.
There are several intertwined threads in the story, which gradually come together into the final scene in the book. They’re woven skillfully together in a manner that still leaves room for some surprises when each of the joins come.
I particularly liked the way the key antagonist is written, it would have been so easy to have made him a stereotype bully boy Gestapo thug. Instead he’s a frail human, lost and alone with his twin brother dead on the Russian steppe and his wife left him and taken their son away. Inspector Hoth uses his intelligence and cunning to catch Jews and ship them off, before coming to the UK to try and catch our protagonists. He’s way more sympathetic than the British Special Branch sidekick he picks up, which makes him all the scarier.
The main characters are all different, yet well observed to feel very real. They have more than one dimension to them. More than stereotypes. The central characters are pre-war university friends thrown together by circumstances. Two are civil servants and spying for the Resistance. The third (Frank Muncaster) is a scientist working at Birmingham University with a brother working for the US Government who gets sectioned after an argument with his brother.
David, one of the principal point of view characters, is a grammar school boy weighed down by the hopes of his family. After university, where he roomed with Muncaster, he joins the colonial office. There’s a brief spell in the army in 1939-40 where he serves in the Norway campaign. After the peace he returns to the Colonial Office. We find him ten years later married to Sarah, the daughter of an active pacifist. Both are still mourning the loss of their young son. David also carries secrets, and bitterness about the Nazi influence on Britain. There’s a marriage in trouble alongside the weightier affairs of state. All of this colours what happens.
Story line – no spoilers
The story revolves around helping Frank escape from the Germans with his terrible secret intact. His brother has been working on the atomic bomb for the American government. Frank has learnt something that would make it easier for others to practically?build their own bomb.
There are two parallel attempts to get Frank out of the mental hospital that he’s been placed in. One by the resistance and the other by the Germans. The Germans are constrained by the niceties of Britain being notionally independent.
If you are a fan of alternative history this is definitely a must read. There’s a stack of research underpinning the book, and I didn’t spot anything that felt wrong to me.
The next megagame I’m going to is Don’t Panic a what if scenario on Operation Sealion, the planned German invasion of Britain in the autumn of 1940. I’m going to be the British Control. So no playing for me. However that doesn’t mean that I can’t look at how I would plan the Operation Sealion invasion myself.
Firstly we need to get into the nazi mindset. They’re essentially divide and conquer gamblers with no medium term view. They have an innate belief in their own superiority and on the inevitability of their eventual victory.
The other interesting thing is that the German General Staff see crossing the Channel as simply a large scale river crossing. To them it’s like crossing the Rhine, only a bit wider. This affects their thinking and probably explains why they didn’t ever attempt it. As they planned it, the obstacles just multiplied.
Since England, in spite of her hopeless military situation, shows no signs of being ready to come to an understanding, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out.
The aim of this operation will be to eliminate the English homeland as a base for the prosecution of the war against Germany and, if necessary, to occupy it completely.
The German army has been victorious, sweeping all before it. All of continental Europe from Poland to the Pyrenees is under German control. Only Britain stands alone against Germany. The British army has been defeated in Europe and has left most of its first line equipment behind.
By mid August 1940 the panzer divisions will have been refitted, casualties either returned from hospital or been replaced. The luftwaffe is established in the French and Belgian airfields. The Kriegsmarine has assembled lots of barges ready for crossing the Channel.
In Britain the beach defences are being strengthened. However, the Briitsh Army is still short of transport and heavy equipment. The situation is so desperate that the British government has even called up old men and boys into a ‘Home Guard’. Weapons are so short that some of the Home Guard are armed with pikes.
Broadly the German invasion force can expect parity in numbers with the British in the invasion area. There is a qualitative advantage in terms of equipment and experience. The campaigns in Poland and the West have proved that beyond doubt. Operation Sealion is expected to follow the same pattern as the previous campaigns.
Hitler requires a speedy end to the war. German industry is short of manpower and the army needs to release skilled men soon. Operation Sealion is intended to bring the war to a speedy end.
Considerations for Operation Sealion
Broad vs Narrow Front
Normally military strategy suggests concentration of force. As an attacker you have a choice where you attack. A defender on the other hand has to spread out to cover all possible avenues of approach.
The British can be expected to rapidly deploy their remaining mobile reserve, including an armoured division, against any landing. This could tip the balance before strong enough German forces are ashore. The speed of response is likely to be slower if they cannot be sure where our schwerpunkt is located. Multiple landing points will aid this.
We need to capture a port as early as possible to enable unloading panzer forces. Once panzers are set free in England we can be assured of victory.
Both of these point to a strategy of attacking multiple small ports to ensure that at least one is captured rapidly.
We also need forward airfields to help the Luftwaffe support ground forces. It will also enable air landing troops to be brought in. This will speed up the force build up and make it harder for the British to defeat us in detail before we can join up.
This leads to the selection of ports. RAF bases at Marston and Tangmere have recently been abandoned and are in close proximity to ports. Similarly Dover has two airfields in close proximity and the castle is a major threat to our use of the channel.
Causing Civilian Panic
Fleeing civilians are useful to the German success. They cause bottlenecks that stop the enemy bringing up reinforcements. They also adversely affect morale. This latter is important politically as well as militarily. We need the British Government to sue for peace. The faster this happens the better.
Effective ways of reducing civilian morale are:
airborne troops behind the main lines (even if only rumoured);
tank breakthroughs, especially if accompanied with pictures at iconic places for the newspapers and cinema news reels;
sinking of supply ships so that rationing is tightened;
terror bombing of cities, especially London and other industrial centres.
Operation Sealion requires a rapid buildup with simultaneous action at sea and in the air to split or slow the British response is required to give time for a foothold to be established in England. This will maximise political pressure and ensure military victory.
Operation Sealion’s broad strategic goals must be to get a foothold, rapidly expand it and encourage the political opposition in the UK. Ways to do this are
surge the Kriegsmarine into the Atlantic for commerce raiding (apart from the bits directly needed for supporting the invasion)
use a u-boat screen to stop the RN getting in amongst the invasion fleet.
select four small ports across the Kent and Sussex coast for direct seaborne assault supported from the air. Put a battalion of paras on the closest airfield to the selected beaches
reinforce success with air landed troops on the captured airfields and tanks into the captured ports
transfer luftwaffe units to the captured airfields as rapidly as possible to increase loiter time and range
collect up the paras as soon as possible for a second drop on London or wherever intelligence suggests Churchill or the Royal Family are hiding out.
I’ve written a short story called Hunting Nazis for the End of Module Assessment (EMA) for A215 Creative Writing. The target word count was 2,500 with an upper limit of +10%. The first draft weighed in at 5k words, double the target length. However some of this was because although I plotted it I needed to tell myself the story in the first draft. Once I got to the end it was much easier to re-edit and take out some of it.
The central premise is that Reggie and Dot (from the earlier story Planting the Past) have been hunting nazis guilty of war crimes against the members of the French resistance and SOE agents supporting the network that they were both part of during World War Two. The story takes place in Berlin in 1953 when they are tying up the last few loose ends.
There are a couple of supporting characters, Paul, another ex-resistance fighter, but one that Dot (called Nancy by him as that was her code name) doesn’t trust, she’s convinced that he betrayed people to the Germans. He was arrested and deported to Berlin by the Gestapo as they left France in September 1944. Somehow he managed to survive this and the fall of Berlin to the Soviets and then establish a nightclub in a converted public air raid shelter near the Potsdamerplatz. One of his employees, a barman named Gustav is an ex-SS rifleman attached to the unit lead by SS Captain Hechte in the final days of the Reich. Reggie and Dot are looking to recover a relic stolen by Hechte and to confirm his death in May 1945 at the hands of the soviets.
There are also a couple of friendlies from their SOE days, still employed by British Intelligence but now spying on the soviets with the help of Paul and his nightclub. Their worry is that Reggie and Dot’s activities might scare off the Soviet officers they’ve been blackmailing if they are too blatant.
No spoilers, so that’s as much as I can say other than that it all comes to a climax in an abandoned bunker under the Soviet zone.
While this has lots of fascinating information about SOE Operations in France in WW2 it needs a better editor. The nature of the story, primarily of the secret operations in German occupied France in 1943 and the SD penetration of the SOE network, is one of many parallel threads and the uncovering of a mystery. So this makes it hard to just write a linear narrative, and the author has done a pretty good job of writing very readable prose that clearly explains what is going on. However there are a few places where the ordering of the material goes backwards within a few paragraphs and crucial pieces of information are given out of order.
The book shows an awful lot of research was done by the author, over a period of what seems to be years, and building on the work done by a number of predecessors. There is an academic level of referencing and footnotes. Â There are several distinct parts to the book. The first is a narrative on four women SOE agents killed by the nazis at Natzweiler, which then widens to encompass the others that were arrested around the same time and that shared their captivity in Fresnes and then Karlsruhe. Each of these women is identified and has their life story before joining SOE told. Where it is known this then leads up to how they were captured.
Another piece of the narrative are the attempts by others (initally Vera Atkins in 1945-6 and then Jean Overton Fuller) to find out what happened to the women after they were arrested. This then leads nicely into attempts to work out whether or not the women were betrayed, and if so by whom. There has been a lot of controversy about this, and many of the participants in the events have competing theories. Traitors in SOE, strategic deception and sacrifice by the British, french informers, poor operational security of the SOE agents, German counter-intelligence competence. Each of these is disected in turn, sometimes adding new perspectives to help rule them in/out.
Lastly there is some discussion of the post-war discoveries as the secrets kept for 20-30 years following the war started to come out. How the revelations around both Ultra intelligence and the British strategic deception plans changed how the events of 1943 are interpreted to modern eyes.
On a content basis this should be a five star book, it draws together all the earlier sources and is well written. However the structure lets it down, and makes it harder to assimilate. It reads like the collected notes of the author more than as a structured narrative.
If you want to know what it was like as a spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, then this is the book you need to read. The author was a public schoolboy that joined the RAF just before the outbreak of war. He signed up in the spring of 1939 and started training as soon as he finished school in July 1939.
The first third of the book is a very detailed account of his entry to the service and the flight training. Through this we get to know the author as a typical public schoolboy, he struggles with the academic side, but has no problems with the discipline and dealing with being in a service institution. Flying is clearly his passion, and is most of the focus of the book. Other than his struggles with the training matter, and the mental stress of combat flying and dealing with the progressive loss of his friends there is little else in the story.
There is no bigger picture, or even narrative of the wider progress of the war to put things in context. When he is rushed out of training and posted directly to an operational squadron (no.92) it is because the Germans have invaded France, however we’re not directly told this. The closest he comes is when the rest of the squadron patrol over Dunkirk, losing many of the old hands including the CO Roger Bushell (who lead the Great Escape). If you didn’t know how the war went then you could be baffled by some of this. Also, there is nothing about the Battle of Britain directly, other than accounts of some of his more notable sorties (the first, some where he has narrow escapes or shoots down or damages enemy aircraft).
That said, it is a very good first hand account of what it was like on a very personal level. The flights are very well described in some detail. It is clear that Geoffrey Wellum was deeply affected by his war experience and that being an operational fighter pilot represented the pinnacle for him. His tour as an instructor between operational tours is dispensed with in a couple of pages. The narrative between flights shows him moving from an enthusiastic schoolboy to a novice pilot and eventually to a mentally exhausted veteran.
This is the fifth and final part of my extended review of The Stress of Battle by David Rowland. It is such a strong piece of operational research on WW2 heroism that I thought that it would be useful for wargame designers (and players) to understand what the research evidence is for what went on in WW2 battles. This part is on the effects of heroism and combat degradation.
Combat degradation is a measure of how less effective weapon systems and individual soldiers are in actual combat when compared to training exercises and range work. A score of 1.0 is equivalent to not being degraded at all. Degradation to 0.3 would mean that it was operating at 30% of its peacetime range effectiveness.
the analysis by Rowland’s team broadly matches that done by Wigram in 1943, that there are three classes of effectiveness.
About 20% of those involved could be classed as heroes (26% for guns, 9% for tanks).
Of the rest, one third were ineffective (either they didn’t engage, or what they did do didn’t have any significant impact) (27% of the total);
The remaining two-thirds were about 30% effective (53% of the total);
Weapon systems crewed with at least one hero were about five times more effective than those with no heroes;
Overall effectiveness of a unit = 0.2+([Heroes/gun]*0.8)
Leadership improves combat effectiveness (i.e. more officers/SNCOs present leads to greater effectiveness, which is the reason that tanks are less effective than gun crews).
Rowland and his team compared the effectiveness of the most effective and the partly effective groups in both the historical battles for which there was information and also for the field trials conducted by the British Army in the 1970s & 1980s. What they found was that there was the same variability within the two groups, which was attributed to opportunities to engage. However there was a significant difference between the groups, which was attributed to heroes being more effective.
Heroism seems to be a product of genetics, social conditioning and values. Many recipients of gallantry awards had previously been mentioned in despatches, or were decorated again.
Comments on citations for subsequent decorations indicate that a second award always required a stronger case than the first award did.
Heroes maintain their combat effectiveness in future battles, even if not further awarded.
Heroism is more likely at higher ranks (i.e. officers and senior NCOs (Sergeants and above) are more likely to be in the higher performing groups than other ranks).
NB there is a possibility that the awarding of decorations was unfairly skewed by rank, and that those of lower rank that performed heroically weren’t adequately recognised.
Gurkha units were noticably different from British unit, and appear to be 60% more effective in inflicting casualties on the enemy and 60% more likely to be decorated. This comes at the price of higher levels of casualties.
The defintion of Surprise is “the achievement of the unexpected in timing, place or direction such that the enemy cannot react properly”. This is distinct from Shock, where soldiers could react, but didn’t.
Again historical analysis was used and battles where surprise and shock were involved were identified. These were then compared with other battles with similar characteristics so that only either Shock or Surprise were different. The two factors being compared individually with a reference set.
Attack surprise reduces infantry defence effectiveness by 60% at 3:1 attack ratio.
Attack surprise may vary with force ratio (being more marked at low ratios and less effective at higher ratios)
Surprise for tank vs tank reduces casualties Â by a factor of 3 at 1:1 attack ratio for the side achieving surprise.
Attacks below 1:1 ratio were successful 65% of the time when surprise was achieved, where attacks at these ratios were never successful without surprise
At force ratios above 1:1 surprise is less important to success, although there is still higher levels of success with surprise, just not statistically significant.
with surprise force ratio is less important to success (at 1:1 70%, at 3:1 76%)
without surprise the probability of success increases in proportion to the force ratio (at 1:1 40%, at 3:1 54%)
Infantry attacks caused shock in about 15% of cases, rising to 50% when combined with surprise and some of the factors below. Three factors were found to have influenced the ability of infantry to inflict shock:
Charge distance was usually under 100 metres (limited by weight of kit), where it was longer that was found to be because the enemy had already broken.
Visibility was significant, typically shock occurs at night or in poor visibilityincluding where the terrain offers concealment
Defence morale was affected by Battle cries, cheers and yells seemed to put defenders off balance.
Bayonets played a major role (but not to cause casualties, as a psychological weapon inducing the enemy to surrender or run away).
Tank attacks caused shock in about 10% of battles analysed.
‘Invulnerable’ tanks cause shock which can lead to panic, in about 50% of cases
Surprise alone caused shock in 27% of the time
Surprise + invulnerable tanks gave 70% Shock
Surprise + poor visibility gave 85% shock
Surprise + all of the above gave 95% shock
Air attacks cause shock most often when they are a dive/strafe attack where the aircraft is aimed directly at the target.
Typically shock by ground attack reduces defence effectiveness by 65%.
Unlike small arms, the effectiveness of weapons used for anti-tank combat has changed considerably over the course of the mid-20th century. From non-specialist gunfire in WW1, to high velocity armour piercing in WW2 and then to Anti-Tank Guided Weapons in the Cold War period. This makes the operational research on anti-tank combat harder to do because the start point needs to be battles where only one kind of AT weapon is in action. Much of the analysis on anti-tank combat starts with the ‘Snipe’ action during the second battle of El Alamein in North Africa where data on each of the guns individually was available.
‘heroic performance’ plays a large factor in the effectiveness of anti-tank guns
about a quarter of guns (at most) performed heroically (including those where platoon, company or battalion level officers assisted with firing guns)
Â rate of fire is proportionate to target availability (i.e. when there are multiple targets crews fire faster)
the median point for heroes was 0.3 tank casualties per gun, where for non-heroes it was 0.03 tank casualties per gun
tanks are less effective in defence than AT guns alone, or tanks supported by AT Guns
AT Guns with tanks apparently kill three times more tanks than the tanks would on their own
AT Gun performance is attributed to having a higher concentration of SNCOs and Officers with deployed ATG compared to tanks (about three times as many)
heroes were disproportionately represented by SNCOs and Officers (at least in terms of who got the medals), in 75% of cases an SNCO or Officer senior to the gun crew commander was involved
Paddy Griffith is quoted on tank casualties that â€œrelatively few appeared to have been caused by enemy tanksâ€
Overall it shows that the biggest single effect in anti-tank combat was down to leadership. Where gun crews are well lead then they are significantly more effective in battle. This is assuming that the guns in question can have some effect on the tanks that they are shooting at, which was the case in all of the battles examined (including a mix where the guns defended successfully with those where the gun lines were overrun by tanks).
This is the third part of my extended review of The Stress of Battle by David Rowland. It is such a strong piece of operational research that I thought that it would be useful for wargame designers (and players) to understand what the research evidence is for what went on in WW2 battles.
Fighting in Woods
The data comes from an analysis of 120 battles that took place in woods or forests from the US Civil War to the Korean War. It also applied all the things from the previous research and tried to see how woods differed from combat in other types of terrain.
For this part I thought that I would focus on the lessons on urban battles. Rowland and his team used historical analysis on lots of WW2 urban battles and then compared this to a series of field trials using laser attachments to small arms and tank main armaments in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Â The approach was toÂ find battles where single variables could be controlled, and then use them to work out what the effect of that variable was on outcomes.
Here’s an interesting table on how attacker casualties vary by odds and the density of defending machine guns. Interestingly, in successful assaults the defender casualties are constant.
The interesting thing for me is that training/experience counts for a lot, halving casualties. Also attacking with the conventional 3:1 odds for success increases the casualties that you suffer, without having any appreciable difference in those inflicted on the enemy (although it does make it more likely for succesful attacksÂ with untrained/inexperienced troops).
Adding armour support makes a huge difference too. Although tanks in urban areas are more vulnerable if they lose their infantry support. However with infantry they significantly reduce attacker casualties.
Defence experience gave no detectable benefit to causing casualties, but attack experience does (in urban combat)
typically three times as many defenders will surrender (some wounded) as are killed or withdraw, the only sensitivity on this is being completely surrounded (so 20% dead, 60% captured (incl wounded) and 20% withdraw);
attack casualties are less affected by force ratio in urban attacks than in open counrtyside;
successful defence of urban areas is best achieved by light defence with counter attacks supported by armour
Rubble & Prepared Defences
This another area covered. There is a general increase in attacker casualties by about 50% when defenders are in rubble or prepared defences. The primary effect of rubble though is to slow down rates of advance.
Rubble halved the rate of advance compared to undamaged urban areas
maximum unopposed advance rates were about 800 metres per hour in urban areas (400m/hr for rubble)
Opposition slowed the advance by a factor of 7
An interesting aside on this was the relative effectiveness of different types of German Infantry. Parachute troops and Panzergrenadiers were reckoned to be tougher opponents than normal infantry. However the analysis showed that the extra stubbornness was a factor of the higher than normal allocation of MGs to those troops. The rate of attacker casualties per defence MG wasn’t significantly different.