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Joint Force Quarterly

Winning on the ground – Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century – Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy

Winning on the ground – Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century – Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy – Book Review

John S. Brown

Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century by Jonathan M. House Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001 364 pp. $19.95 [ISBN: 0-7006-1081-2]

Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy by Russell A. Hart Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001 468 pp. $79.95 [ISBN: 1-5558-7947-0]

Many think that timing is everything. Thus, in an age of the Quadrennial Defense Review, military transformation, and the global war on terrorism it is opportune to find two thoughtful and insightful books, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century by Jonathan M. House and Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy by Russell A. Hart. The first volume argues in favor of preserving balance when tempted by simpler, cheaper, or more expedient tactical solutions; and the second is a cautionary tale on believing that one has arrived at the ultimate tactical solution and that no further creativity is required.

Colonel Jonathan House, USA (Ret.), is currently professor of history at Gordon College. After a brief introduction, he divides his account of combined arms into three phases: “The Triumph of Firepower, 1871-1939”; “Total War, 1939-1945”; and “Hot Wars and Cold, 1945-1990.” Each part begins with a vignette introducing themes: the Mexican punitive expedition (1916), the battle of Saint-Vith (1944), and Task Force Smith (1950). Drawing on various experiences (American, German, Israeli, and Russian), the author analyzes the balances between firepower and maneuver, teamwork and synergy, and branches/ services and the virtues of generalization/specialization.

Starting with early modern formulas for synchronizing infantry, cavalry, and field artillery, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century covers two eras of change in technology: mass-produced rifled weapons, railroads, and telegraphy (as exhibited in the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War) and smokeless powder, repeating rifles, recoiling artillery, machine guns, and the internal combustion engine (which was not fully appreciated in 1914). House begins his study with World War I, teasing tactical lessons from that bloody conflict.

A popular impression of the Great War is that tensions between commanders who sought victory through maneuver and those who preferred overwhelming firepower shifted in favor of the latter–an impasse broken only by the development of tanks and fighter bombers in World War II. House reveals that the situation was more complex, with ample opportunity for restoring maneuver in the Persian Gulf War. Moreover, he suggests that the advocates of decisive maneuver achieved no permanent victories; advanced nations are vulnerable to a siren song that incremental advances in range or precision will win wars without unnecessary violence. Indeed, such a strain was heard recently in the Quadrennial Defense Review.

Successful maneuver in the face of modern firepower has required appreciable teamwork. The suppressive consequences of artillery, fluid infiltration of infantry, tactical mobility of armor, and speed in application of aircraft played a role in enabling maneuver with decisive effect–as did the logistic capability to sustain those assets. But it is not sufficient to have a cerebral appreciation of the way such forces fit together. One must institutionalize these relationships, define respective roles in a coherent doctrine, and train units to execute doctrine in the stress of battle. The strength of this rationale is not only the attention needed to make it happen in concept, but also how to make it happen in practice. House does not ignore past failures. The Pentomic division, for example, is duly addressed and provides a warning against radical organizational changes which are dependent on unrealized technological advances.

Teamwork begs the question of specialization in a complex military. How large must units be to achieve economies of scale? How many specialties and kinds of equipment can one leader manage? On what level is a combination of arms most efficient? On what level do joint operations become practical? The increasing complexity of warfare has reduced the proportion of combatants to those who support them–the celebrated tooth to tail ratio.

After a long view presented by House, Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy by Russell Hart offers a case study of the arms and services in Britain, Canada, Germany, and the United States and their performance in a single campaign. The author is assistant professor and specialist in modern military history at Hawaii Pacific University. More than a survey of tactics, Hart assesses the operational effectiveness of four armies throughout the campaign and the origins and causes of their relative successes. He progresses in three phases. First, Hart describes the long-term evolution of these armies before the Normandy invasion during the interwar period, then includes a chapter on each that covers the events of 1939-44. Second, after a campaign overview, he reviews their performance in Normandy from June to August 1944. Finally, he provides a wrap up in a ten-page conclusion that is worth the price of the book.

Regarding the militaries of the interwar years, Clash of Arms portrays Germany as focused, innovative, and ultimately sufficient in resources, and Britain as distracted, hostile to change, and gravely understrength. In the United States, the Army was woefully unprepared–while the Army Air Corps and Navy were somewhat less so–but the intellectual vitality and technical innovation of the officer corps nurtured the potential for wartime growth. Canada succumbed to antimilitarism altogether and totally neglected defense readiness.

Hart finds that the interwar-year patterns played out. The Germans were combat effective at the start and got better between 1939 and 1942. By 1944, despite horrid losses in both East and West, they sustained a qualitative edge overall. The British had difficulty shedding their colonial distractions and settling on coherent doctrine. They were also averse to self-criticism. Ironically, they learned more from their success than failure. The Americans entered the war with an adequate doctrinal and technical base and a heartfelt commitment to total mobilization followed by total war, though their practical experience was initially meager. By Normandy they had braved appreciable combat in the Pacific, North Africa, and the Mediterranean and demonstrated an inclination toward self-criticism, adaptation, and appropriate transformation. Canada, not geographically threatened, remained sluggish in its preparations and had not accrued much combat experience even by D-Day. In fact, only 2 percent of the Canadian troops slated for Overlord had ever been in action.

None of the armies that met at Normandy were truly prepared according to Hart. Germany had never endured as much firepower or airpower, with consequent implications for their defenses and mobility. And while the Allies had thought through the landing and war of maneuver that was to follow, they had not anticipated the struggle to cut through bocage to maneuver. German forces adapted in the face of enemy firepower through greater dispersion and hostile airpower by moving at night or in inclement weather. Anglo-Canadian forces tried to break through enemy defenses by unsubtle attritional attacks based on overwhelming firepower.

While this approach was intended to minimize friendly casualties, it limited progress because huge amounts of artillery ammunition had to be stocked prior to advances on the ground. The Americans, on the other hand, were deliberate and innovative, developing company-level tactics to penetrate the thickets, balancing firepower with decisive efforts at maneuver, and steadily integrating branches and services. Ultimately, qualitative differences between Americans and Germans disappeared whereas quantitative differences did not. U.S. forces swept through France in an overwhelming triumph.

Hart notes that ideology degraded German esprit at Normandy by promoting the belief that racially pure Aryans (and near-Aryan Anglo-Saxons) were better fighters than mongrel Americans. Germany underestimated the U.S. military until it was too late. The aftermath of Operation Cobra inflicted a serious wound from which Westheer would never really recover.

Combined Arms Warfare and Clash of Arms should be read by students of military history. Both are well written and thoughtful. In the face of doctrinal ferment today, House persuasively advocates balanced capabilities and Hart examines never-ending adaptation to cope with an enemy that adapts itself. These perspectives are timely and important.

Brigadier General John S. Brown, USA, is Commander, U.S. Army Center of Military History.

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