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stug111
12-02-2007, 11:18 AM
controversial first post perhaps but here goes ...

in world war 1 BEF was basically an elite army, far superior to its continental rivals and the post world war 2 british army is widely regarded as the best in nato and therefore the world ...

in world war 2 however the british army performed terribly in comparison to the germans ... why ? equipment ? doctrine ? training ? lack of enthusiasm ? terrible leadership ? what made uk units perform so badly ? i thought perhaps it was creaming off the best men to commando units and LRDG SAS etc. but it cant have had that bad an effect ... i would like some opinions

pdf27
12-02-2007, 03:42 PM
in world war 1 BEF was basically an elite army, far superior to its continental rivals
What bit of the first world war? The BEF went through three different phases:
1) 1914 - early 1915: Sir John French's Contemptible little army. Man for man the best army of the time, but this is hardly surprising given that it was the only army of long service regulars in the conflict (everyone else was relying on recalled and active service conscripts). Even then some fairly major problems were shown up, notably the British reliance on field guns rather than the Howitzers used by the Germans - this bit the British badly at Le Cateau and for some time afterwards.
The prewar British army was pretty much exterminated by the end of the battle of Loos - the survivors were largely split up and used in a training role, and the sheer size of the war meant that those who were left had little impact.
2) 1915-1918: A bloody apprenticeship. The New Armies had the will to fight, but were faced with a tactical problem nobody had yet solved. This lead directly to the bloodbaths of the Somme and Ypres - but it should be held in mind here that everyone else had the same problem. The Germans suffered as badly as the British at the Somme and Ypres, and the French and Germans had their own bloodbaths at Verdun and Chemin des Dames. All in all, the British were no better than anyone else at this point.
3) 1918: The Hundred Days.The greatest series of victories in British military history, and the only time in history a British army has defeated the main strength of a continental enemy. However, even here it would be an exaggeration to say we were far superior to anyone else - it would be true to say we were better, but not that much better. Furthermore, of the areas where we were ahead (leadership, tactics and mass of artillery) only tactics can really be attributed to the army itself. Still, for it's time the British army of 1918 was probably the greatest we have ever fielded.

Moving on to WW2, stages one and two weren't so very different (one of the perils of not having peacetime conscription or a large standing army). The British army of 1939 was actually pretty good, but was crippled by poor armour doctrine. Where they could secure their flanks or the German C3 infrastructure broke down (the defence of Dunkirk/Calais, and the battle of Arras respectively) the British army actually did pretty well.
Stage two wasn't quite as severe because the answers to the problems faced were well known (portable radios, air support and armoured vehicles). However, it still showed up in the length of time taken to secure North Africa/Italy, and the defeats in the Far East.

Stage 3 didn't ever really happen though, for a large number of reasons. Certainly there was a massive creaming off effect of the best leaders going on, but the various commando units had a minor effect. Far more important was Bomber Command - this had 125,000 aircrew, and these were the very men who in WW1 would have been relied upon to provide the junior leaders for the army. By and large, in WW2 the British Army got whoever was left over after the other services had taken their pick. There were some attempts to reverse this (Commando forces as you've already noted, as well as Airbourne forces and the Guards Armoured division), but they had rather limited success.

One final factor which as I understand it was a German innovation for WW2 was the concept of Mission Command. Basically, you give your subordinates a mission to carry out and any necessary restrictions (e.g. report lines or timings). You do NOT tell them how to do it - which makes it a hell of a lot easier for them to react when something surprising happens. Nowadays every competent army uses this, but during WW2 IIRC only the Germans did.

Rising Sun*
12-03-2007, 08:13 AM
in world war 2 however the british army performed terribly in comparison to the germans ... why ? equipment ? doctrine ? training ? lack of enthusiasm ? terrible leadership ? what made uk units perform so badly ? i thought perhaps it was creaming off the best men to commando units and LRDG SAS etc. but it cant have had that bad an effect ... i would like some opinions

Well, in the end, the Brits won. And that's what matters.

In the early years, money, stupidity and hope were at the heart of it.

Penny pinching between the wars (look at the way the RN paid off its officers and men) by Britain. Ably assisted by the Depression.

Stupidity, that ensured that those who presided over the penny pinching while aware of the treaty breaches by Germany didn't bother to consider the effects of Germany building its armed forces while Britain was running its armed forces down.

Hope, that somehow the inevitable consequences of money and stupidity wouldn't end as they were bound to. Chamberlain exemplified hope with his grand 'Peace in our time' statement.

LRDG, commandos etc were only factors long after the war began.

In the early years, after Dunkirk, what mattered primarily was the sea war. A year or two later the air war began to be important over Europe, after the fairly brief but critical Battle of Britain.

Germany, and for that matter Japan and the USSR, never had to confront the immense strategical and logistical issues Britain had across most of the planet.

Stalin had limited naval issues, and no strategic bombing capacity or campaign.

Hitler had nothing to worry about in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, apart from some fairly pointless actions by commerce raiders. He never ran a strategic bombing campaign that really mattered.

While Hitler was pulling Mussoliniís nuts out of the fire in Greece in mid 1941 preparatory to Barbarossa, he didnít have the same problem that Churchill did in committing troops to Greece for essentially pointless political reasons (taking them from North Africa where the Germans had gone largely to rescue the eternally ambitious but incompetent Italians from another disaster).

Churchill knew when he committed troops to Greece that Japan was likely to attack. So did Hitler. The difference is, it wasnít a problem for Hitler, and he didnít have to dispose his forces against potential threats in Asia.

Apart from the U boat war, Germany pretty much played out its war on land, most of it out of reach of Britain in the early years.

Iím not Churchillís biggest fan by any means, but if you take him as representative of Britain then, given what he had to deal with, he did a bloody good job. Not one without typically Churchillian errors of arrogance and stupidity, but overall probably a bloody sight better than Chamberlain or Halifax could have managed even on belly full of grog.

The question might be, why did Germany do so badly against British forces which had rather more to deal with than Germany?

And that goes to Germany biting off a lot more than it could chew in Europe.

stug111
12-03-2007, 02:09 PM
i was referring to the initially deployed bef. the rapier amongst scythes, 15 rounds a minute etc. and i agree the last hundred days of world war 1 all the experience of the last 4 years seemd to come together and allow the great offensives of 1918. i was thinking about the 8th armies patchy perfomance against DAK and its reliance on set piece battles of firepower and attrition to defeat DAK compared to its own version of blitzkreig on the italians. i wont mention malaysia singapore and burma. italy was great for defensive combat so there are mitigating factors there but in north west europe campaign uk divisions seemed ponderous despite all the firepower they had and i remember reading a churchill diary where he was bemused by the performance of british divisions and really could not explain the need to outnumber outgun and outsupply the germans in order to have a chance against them. and it does not explain post world war 2 level of army ability but then again the bundeswher are a poor shadow of the whermacht ... role reversal ?

1000ydstare
12-03-2007, 02:33 PM
You should really reduce the scope of your questions. You are covering massive amounts of information and variables.

Nickdfresh
12-03-2007, 06:05 PM
I honestly cannot say I've ever heard that the British Army's overall performance was "poor." There were some low points, and certainly a lack of aggressiveness was characteristic in some theaters farther on (mainly the Italian). But then again, British troops had seen near constant combat since 1940 and war weariness became an issue unlike the Greenhorn Americans. And certainly the Eighth Army bested the Africa Corp and her Italian allies with only very limited help from US combat forces at the end..

That being said, I'm also aware that there were some both within and without the British military that felt the British high command had an inordinate number of senior generals that had been "promoted to their position of incompetence," meaning they may have been fine division commanders and distinguished combat records from WWI, but gradually began to show an inability to handle corp and army level assignments. General Alexander may be the prototypical archetype, as he cut a dashing figure in uniform and was courageous commanding a great deal of respect just by his physical presence; but his strategic decision making gradually became more suspect as he commanded more and more of the Mediterranean theater. This is quantified in his ever increasing time it took for him to reach critical decisions and manage assets once he took overall command from Wilson...

pdf27
12-03-2007, 07:13 PM
i was referring to the initially deployed bef. the rapier amongst scythes, 15 rounds a minute etc. and i agree the last hundred days of world war 1 all the experience of the last 4 years seemd to come together and allow the great offensives of 1918.
They're two different things. The first was simply a matter of long service regular soldiers against conscripts. The second is a case of an army that has gone through a revolution in military affairs (to borrow a current buzzword) faster than all the other armies out there and was benefiting from it.


i was thinking about the 8th armies patchy perfomance against DAK and its reliance on set piece battles of firepower and attrition to defeat DAK compared to its own version of blitzkreig on the italians.
Again, somewhat misleading. The British army that beat the Italians was totally mechanised and largely armoured, against an Italian army with hardly any armour, and limited motor transport. The British (& Empire/Commonwealth) troops were incomparably better trained and better led. Blitzkrieg worked here (like it did in France) because the opponents connived at their own destruction.
The DAK however was a different beast. It was as well mechanised/armoured as the British troops, superbly led and well trained. Against an enemy like that, unless you have immensely superior kit or leadership (neither was true) you're limited to battles of attrition. And to be fair, to a great extent Rommel was fighting the same kind of war whenever he came up against a strong defensive position like El Alamein or Tobruk.


but in north west europe campaign uk divisions seemed ponderous despite all the firepower they had and i remember reading a churchill diary where he was bemused by the performance of british divisions and really could not explain the need to outnumber outgun and outsupply the germans in order to have a chance against them.
Mission command is a biggie here, and not an obvious one. By applying the principles of it all levels of your army react much quicker to the unexpected, and thus it acts as a massive force multiplier. Bomber Command creaming off so many of those who would otherwise have been junior leaders is a big one here too.


and it does not explain post world war 2 level of army ability but then again the bundeswher are a poor shadow of the whermacht ... role reversal ?
The Bundeswehr are pretty good but have two problems:
1) Lots of conscripts
2) Crippling political restrictions arising from WW2
Incidentally, man for man I'd expect the Bundeswehr to shred the Wehrmacht. To a great extent, Germany's enemies during WW2 flattered their performance.
As for the UK, our immediate postwar performance (in Korea and during the retreat from Empire) was OK but not brilliant. Again, a conscript army at work. It was only with the return to an all volunteer army that performance started to radically improve. 50 years of non-stop low level warfare somewhere or other has helped too.

Drake
12-03-2007, 07:50 PM
The Bundeswehr are pretty good but have two problems:
1) Lots of conscripts
2) Crippling political restrictions arising from WW2
Incidentally, man for man I'd expect the Bundeswehr to shred the Wehrmacht. To a great extent, Germany's enemies during WW2 flattered their performance.
As for the UK, our immediate postwar performance (in Korea and during the retreat from Empire) was OK but not brilliant. Again, a conscript army at work. It was only with the return to an all volunteer army that performance started to radically improve. 50 years of non-stop low level warfare somewhere or other has helped too.

Well, we're working on both, the conscript part has already been tremendously reduced. They are planning to have a purely professional part which is supposed to be highly strategically mobile etc. and will be the part of the armed forces that will be deployed abroad for peacekeeping and combat missions. And there will also still be a conscript part, but I guess this is mostly because if they'd skip that completely they would have serious problems in the social services without the cheap labour the conscription deniers provide :mrgreen:.
For the political hamstrings, I'd expect it to take another decade or so and all the apprehensions concerning the use of military force will be gone. The first steps have been made in the balkans in '99 and I guess even the most stubborn babyboomer pacificst can't keep up his attitude forever if our partners f.e. in afghanistan are bleeding in combat while we're happy with the PR job. As it is today the politicians are probably more concerned about public opinion than anything else, but let's be honest, the public is stupid and forgets things faster than that guy in 50 first dates and sooner or later the last obstacles will be gone.

stug111
12-04-2007, 03:13 PM
I honestly cannot say I've ever heard that the British Army's overall performance was "poor." There were some low points, and certainly a lack of aggressiveness was characteristic in some theaters farther on (mainly the Italian). But then again, British troops had seen near constant combat since 1940 and war weariness became an issue unlike the Greenhorn Americans. And certainly the Eighth Army bested the Africa Corp and her Italian allies with only very limited help from US combat forces at the end..




battle weariness is something that didnt seem to effect certain german formations like 1st ss LAH but perhaps the fact they were fighting for their homeland rather than an overseas empire (burma, singapore) motivated them more than can be said for 51st highland and 7th armoured ... i am sure there were about 17 british divisions that never saw any combat and sat in the uk doing nothing during the war and this was part of the reason the desert veterans didnt perform in the bocage as they resented the fact they were fighting non stop for 3 or 4 years while troops did nothing in uk. i know the units in malaysia were barely trained and completely untrained for the jungle apart from a single batalion of argyles and that can account for their shambolic performance.

stug111
12-04-2007, 03:16 PM
Well, we're working on both, the conscript part has already been tremendously reduced. They are planning to have a purely professional part which is supposed to be highly strategically mobile etc. and will be the part of the armed forces that will be deployed abroad for peacekeeping and combat missions. And there will also still be a conscript part, but I guess this is mostly because if they'd skip that completely they would have serious problems in the social services without the cheap labour the conscription deniers provide :mrgreen:.
For the political hamstrings, I'd expect it to take another decade or so and all the apprehensions concerning the use of military force will be gone. The first steps have been made in the balkans in '99 and I guess even the most stubborn babyboomer pacificst can't keep up his attitude forever if our partners f.e. in afghanistan are bleeding in combat while we're happy with the PR job. As it is today the politicians are probably more concerned about public opinion than anything else, but let's be honest, the public is stupid and forgets things faster than that guy in 50 first dates and sooner or later the last obstacles will be gone.

glad to hear it ! just out of interest how much of the wehrmacht`s doctrine did the bundeswehr adopt ? i know that the officers were all veterans of the war so it would seem an obvious choice to continue where they left off

Nickdfresh
12-04-2007, 04:03 PM
battle weariness is something that didnt seem to effect certain german formations like 1st ss LAH but perhaps the fact they were fighting for their homeland rather than an overseas empire (burma, singapore) motivated them more than can be said for 51st highland and 7th armoured ... i am sure there were about 17 british divisions that never saw any combat and sat in the uk doing nothing during the war and this was part of the reason the desert veterans didnt perform in the bocage as they resented the fact they were fighting non stop for 3 or 4 years while troops did nothing in uk. i know the units in malaysia were barely trained and completely untrained for the jungle apart from a single batalion of argyles and that can account for their shambolic performance.

I don't know about that...

Some German units no doubt felt the strain and there are stories of "Fritiz giving up" towards the end, at least to the Western Allies...

I sense in the East, there was probably much more desperation to keep back the angry Red hordes bent on almost a demonic vengeance. But, the German troops in the West were also aware that their homeland was being bombed daily, which may have made them all the more desperate and given them much more of a stark perception than that the British soldier, whose home was by and large still there and under an occupation of a GI sort. Not to mention that much of the German Wehrmacht of 1940 probably didn't exist by 1944 just by the turnover and attrition of large scale surrenders and annihilations....

Drake
12-04-2007, 05:15 PM
glad to hear it ! just out of interest how much of the wehrmacht`s doctrine did the bundeswehr adopt ? i know that the officers were all veterans of the war so it would seem an obvious choice to continue where they left off

Today the actual combat doctrines follow the lines of the US Army. I mean we've trained with our Natopartners for 50 years now and there are many new gadgets. And of course the veterans shaped the bundeswehr based on their experience and I guess if you'd put some work into research you could find the similarities, but I don't know details. What I do know is that they copied parts of handbooks (drawings) and even today you occasionally stumble on a booklet with odd looking uniforms :lol: