Thursday, March 12, 2015

Montgomery - a return to attrition

Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery. photographed shortly after his arrival by air in Cairo in 1942.

The Eighth Army still appeared baffled as to how to conduct a fluid open battle in the Western Desert in August 1942. Efforts to devise an effective doctrine and improve combat effectiveness had still largely failed. Fortunately it never had to really do so ever again. The Eighth Army that had rebuffed Rommel's advance at First EI Alamein perhaps fortunately now faced a very different stage of the Desert War, and was under a new commander who had firm ideas about war fighting. Indeed, Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery was the first senior desert commander of Eighth Army who really had the time, opportunity, Will, ruthlessness and confidence to impose his own ideas about doctrine and fighting methods. A common doctrine, standard operating procedures and battle drills modelled in large part on their opponents were introduced on an army-wide basis.

The war machine he commanded was very different from that before, with new and far greater tanks, powerful support artillery and far more troops. By late 1942 the majority of Eighth Army units, moreover, had combat experience and had built up a cadre of trained and experienced officers, NCOs and ORs who knew the business of desert warfare.

The new GOC Eighth Army faced a very different and arguably easier task than his predecessors who had fought in the limitless, open desert - breaking into and through a short, linear German defensive position resting on secure flanks running from the Mediterranean to the Quatarra Depression. It meant that unlike previous commanders Montgomery did not have to fight a fast-moving war of manoeuvre in the desert. Instead, he had to mount a breakthrough attack on a limited front against fixed flanks held by an opponent of inferior strength and in dire logistical shape. The Eighth Army from EI Alamein onwards adopted fighting methods and largely fought the type of war - based on 'older and sounder principles', according to one historian it and the British Army as a whole knew, understood and was good at, namely massed attacks employing heavy artillery firepower on a comparatively narrow front. Many commanders were keen to return to them, especially those at sea in mobile desert warfare. In place of manoeuvre, firepower was used to batter down Axis opponents in an attritional battle, and thereby reduce their ability to inflict losses. Indeed, in many ways these battles it fought and won bore a similarity to those on the Western Front during World War I, in which the British pitted their strengths against Axis weaknesses rather than fighting the Germans on their own terms as before. Several important differences, however, existed, with the British deploying far less artillery, but having powerful support from tactical air forces and new and improved tanks.

The approach that worked so well at El Alamein was followed for the rest of the Desert War, such as at Medenine and the Mareth Line. Henceforward British attacks in North Africa were carefully stage-managed, and were reliant on superior massed firepower and meticulous planning at all levels. These methods were necessary for other reasons. For the armoured brigades the pendulum had swung from one extreme to another in terms of their approach to battle. Following earlier heavy combat losses, many now wisely abandoned charging enemy positions and adopted instead a policy of extreme caution, in part explaining the bodged pursuit after the battle, and a failure to exploit after later battles such as Wadi Akarit. While not as glamorous as earlier tank battles in the open desert, Montgomery's methods worked.

No comments:

Post a Comment