Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

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Carl Schwamberger
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 11 Jan 2023 13:17

Sheldrake wrote:
07 Jan 2023 17:47
There is no easy DS solution to an attack on a reverse slope position, whether in Napoleonic or C20th times. The solution adopted by the British in WW2, using a creeping barrage to support the infantry is as good as any.

Yep. Thats where the skill of your battalion & brigade commanders/staff is important. If they can coordinate the mortars, artillery, air support, covering fire by battalions elements, covering & enfilading fire from other units they are worth their pay. Reading back through this thread I have to think the problem is not the amongst the rifle companies, but a bit higher up in the hierarchy.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 01 Jun 2023 20:17

Tom from Cornwall wrote:
13 Mar 2020 18:58
Max Hastings (Overlord, pp.169-170) quotes excerpts from an interview (conducted in July '83) with 'Major Charles Richardson of 6th KSOB [who] came out of EPSOM , his first battle, overcome with horror and disgust' about the Bn's experience during Op EPSOM and which includes (on p.170) the remark that:
After the battle [Richardson recalled that the KOSBs] talked about 'the spectacle of the Royal Scots Fusiliers cresting a hill to find the Germans dug in on the reverse slope, "something we had never envisaged".'
This was later used [and page referenced by Russell A. Hart in his hatchet-job on the British Army in Normandy (chapter 8 of Clash of Arms, p.313) in the following terms:
'EPSOM clearly demonstrated the inexperience of British troops and the weakness of their training as poor coordination and a failure to comprehend German defensive tactics marred the operation. Soldiers of the Scottish Division, in particular, suffered heavily when the enemy surprised and ambushed them from a classic reverse-slope position. […]'
However, there is nothing in either the KOSB war diary/regimental history that reports on this "event" and although the war diary of 6 RSF describes their difficult fight for ST MAUVIEU on 26 Jun 44, it doesn't match up at all with the "reverse-slope" reference.

In addition, in Ian Daglish's book Over the Battlefield: Operation Epsom he records the following comments (on p.252) from a 2nd Argylls infantry officer which shows that the British Army was attempting to change its tactics before Normandy to deal with German reverse-slope defensive positions:
27 March 1944: Coy/Squadron [Scots Guards] training - a most valuable day. The technique of a combined infantry - tank attack has altered since our last tank training - owing to the implications of reverse slope defence and it was necessary to go over it again.


Has anyone seen other references in contemporary documents (British or American) to the changes in infantry and tank/infantry tactics made to try to counter reverse-slope defences? Or other criticisms based on what appears to have been a relatively casual remark then taken out of context and to reinforce a somewhat mendacious viewpoint?
Going back to Max Hastings and Russell Hart's criticism of British infantry training before Normandy, I've found more evidence in primary sources that there was no "failure to comprehend" German defensive tactics in details of a training exercise being conducted by 5 South Staffs at night in January 1944. The Coy acting as the "enemy" was instructed to:
Action:

Will detail LMG posts in minefield.
LMG posts on HAYSTACK posn.
Fighting patrols for action against HAYSTACK.
F.D.L. and reverse slope posn on MT ANTE.
Counter-attack on MT ANTE.
Source: WO171/1376.

Regards

Tom

Sid Guttridge
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 07 Jun 2023 06:17

There probably needs to be a wider look at British Army performance in WWII. Apparently some 100,000 British troops deserted during the war, while the dockers battalions reportedly "worked to rule" during the invasion of Normandy in case a higher work rate during the war would mean more would be expected of them in peace. And how was it that after four years to prepare for D-Day, we were already running out of replacement infantry after just 6 weeks of operations by a relatively small number of divisions in Normandy?

Cheers,

Sid.

Carl Schwamberger
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 07 Jun 2023 17:22

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
.... And how was it that after four years to prepare for D-Day, we were already running out of replacement infantry after just 6 weeks of operations by a relatively small number of divisions in Normandy?
The simple guess would be Britsh staff planning was not all they thought it was.


At a more complex level the problems or wrong guesses and estimates of the US Army for infantry replacements, and mobilizing ground combat forces in general have been studied, published, and discussed here on the AHF forums. So, it does not look like a unique Brit problem.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Michael Kenny » 07 Jun 2023 17:46

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
And how was it that after four years to prepare for D-Day, we were already running out of replacement infantry after just 6 weeks of operations by a relatively small number of divisions in Normandy?
Perhaps for the same reasons The USA, The Soviet Union and Germany were 'running out of replacement infantry'?

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Michael Kenny » 07 Jun 2023 17:48

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
Apparently some 100,000 British troops deserted during the war,
from a total of 4.6 million who served.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 07 Jun 2023 19:04

Hi Michael Kenny,

You say the the British ran out of replacement infantry, "Perhaps for the same reasons The USA, The Soviet Union and Germany were 'running out of replacement infantry'?"

I think not.

By June 1944 Germany and Russia had already suffered millions of dead, wounded, prisoners and missing in a campaign that involved hundreds of divisions on both sides. They were short of manpower because of years of combat losses. The British did not have this excuse as they had rarely had ten divisions engaged in combat at any one time and often rather less. Indeed, sometimes as few as one!

The Americans do not seem to have been so short of infantry that they had to disband any divisions. The British disbanded the 59th Infantry Division in France towards the end of the Normandy campaign to provide replacements for the losses in other divisions. Several other divisions designated for combat never even left the UK because their infantry was drained off as replacements.

Sorry, but this seems to be a peculiarly British problem. Britain never managed to field as many divisions throughout the war as Poland put into the field on day 1 of the war. By the end of September 1939 more Polish divisions had seen combat than had British divisions by May 1945. Poland had half the UK's population.

This all requires some explanation.

Cheers,

Sid.
Last edited by Sid Guttridge on 07 Jun 2023 19:16, edited 1 time in total.

Sid Guttridge
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 07 Jun 2023 19:16

Hi Michael Kenny,

Certainly 4.6 million men served in the British Army and "only" about 100,000 deserted. However, the "only" looks less impressive when it is considered that 8.3 million men served in the US Army but "only" about 50,000 deserted. If true, the British desertion proportion is about four times as high as the American one.

This is another area that merits investigation.

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Gooner1 » 07 Jun 2023 20:53

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
And how was it that after four years to prepare for D-Day, we were already running out of replacement infantry after just 6 weeks of operations by a relatively small number of divisions in Normandy?
Too small an allocation of new manpower in 1943 and 1944 is one of the reasons. The RAF and the Royal Navy were seen as greater priorities.

Whether the army used its manpower in an efficient manner is another area of scrutiny.

John Peaty's PhD thesis available here https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/stu ... risis-1944 goes into some of these issues.

I'm struck that when the British Army's manpower problems were already becoming evident they still found enough infantry for 20 (twenty!) battalions of Chindits.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Richard Anderson » 07 Jun 2023 21:10

Michael Kenny wrote:
07 Jun 2023 17:48
Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
Apparently some 100,000 British troops deserted during the war,
from a total of 4.6 million who served.
Yes, during the entire war and the figure does not include those apprehended and forced or voluntary returning to service. It is also unclear how many of those were actually just absent-without-leave.

Year/Monthly Average/Rate

1939/1076/269/0.031
1940/11,492/952/0.059
1941/22,103/1,842/0.088
1942/19,836/1,653/0.072
1943/15,151/1,263/0.050
1944/18,370/1,531/0.060
1945/11,354/1,419/0.054
Total 99,382
Richard C. Anderson Jr.

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Michael Kenny
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Michael Kenny » 07 Jun 2023 21:32

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 19:04
The British disbanded the 59th Infantry Division in France towards the end of the Normandy campaign to provide replacements for the losses in other divisions.
But they did not HAVE to disband any Unit. They could have done what the Soviets & German did. Reduce the Division establishment or run with the shortages


Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 19:04
Britain never managed to field as many divisions throughout the war as Poland put into the field on day 1 of the war. By the end of September 1939 more Polish divisions had seen combat than had British divisions by May 1945. Poland had half the UK's population.

This all requires some explanation.
First check on the size of the Polish Navy and Air Force in 1939.
Then study British History.
Look at the size of The Army compared to The RN and then The RAF.
Look at the requirements to be fit enough to be conscripted.
Look at a UK Divisional establishment and compare it to its German counterpart.
Find a time when Britain was a major (as in size of boots on the ground and excluding Allies) Land Power at any time in its history.

Also look at how The USA decided first on the size of the Army it required (calculated against its expected role) and then built for that total.
The Soviet /German method was to get every warm body over 16 and under 99 and endlessly form new and under-strength paper Units.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 08 Jun 2023 07:15

Hi Gooner,

I think you will find that only ten of the Chindit battalions were British. The rest were Gurkhas and West Africans. Furthermore, they were almost all pre-war regular battalions found within theatre. Only two were wartime-raised Territorial battalions. The Chindits probably did not impact directly on manpower allocations in the UK. However, they probably did impact the British presence in Indian Army divisions. Slim complains in his memoirs about the diversion of quality manpower to the Chindits at the expense of the rest of 14th Army.

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 08 Jun 2023 07:42

Hi Michael Kenny,

You don't seem very consistent.

First you say the British, "..... did not HAVE to disband any Unit. They could have done what the Soviets & German did. Reduce the Division establishment or run with the shortages." Indeed they could, but this unbalances the divisions concerned, which undermines their effectiveness, particularly on the offensive, as the Germans and Soviets found out.

You then say, "The Soviet /German method was to get every warm body over 16 and under 99 and endlessly form new and under-strength paper Units." So you are advocating that the British produce "under strength paper units"? How does that help?

You post, "First check on the size of the Polish Navy and Air Force in 1939." I did. I note that you do not disagree with me when I wrote, "Britain never managed to field as many divisions throughout the war as Poland put into the field on day 1 of the war. By the end of September 1939 more Polish divisions had seen combat than had British divisions by May 1945. Poland had half the UK's population."

It rather looks as though the British Army was both relatively small throughout the war compared with continental armies AND had a particular desertion problem even though not usually as heavily engaged as them. The highest estimate I can find for German desertions by the end of 1944 is in the 300,000-400,000 range, which is still below the British rate because the Germans fielded an army several times as large as the British Army. Furthermore, it was far, far more heavily engaged and suffered far more casualties. However, this figure is thought by other historians to be a considerable exaggeration and they postulate in the 100,000 range for German desertions by the end of 1944. (German returns start to break down after this.)

You say,

"Look at the size of The Army compared to The RN and then The RAF.
Look at the requirements to be fit enough to be conscripted.
Look at a UK Divisional establishment and compare it to its German counterpart.
"

Good, you are beginning to engage in some of the investigations I was advocating. What was your conclusion in these cases?

You ask, "Find a time when Britain was a major (as in size of boots on the ground and excluding Allies) Land Power at any time in its history." How about WWI? About 60 British divisions served on the Western Front. At the end of WWII there were apparently only 24 British divisions.

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Westphalia1812 » 08 Jun 2023 08:43

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 19:16
Hi Michael Kenny,

Certainly 4.6 million men served in the British Army and "only" about 100,000 deserted. However, the "only" looks less impressive when it is considered that 8.3 million men served in the US Army but "only" about 50,000 deserted. If true, the British desertion proportion is about four times as high as the American one.

This is another area that merits investigation.

Cheers,

Sid.
Do these numbers include other CW troops?

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sheldrake » 08 Jun 2023 12:00

Sid Guttridge wrote:
07 Jun 2023 06:17
There probably needs to be a wider look at British Army performance in WWII. Apparently some 100,000 British troops deserted during the war, while the dockers battalions reportedly "worked to rule" during the invasion of Normandy in case a higher work rate during the war would mean more would be expected of them in peace. And how was it that after four years to prepare for D-Day, we were already running out of replacement infantry after just 6 weeks of operations by a relatively small number of divisions in Normandy?

Cheers,

Sid.
My 2p.

British War Aim,s were not entirely in lock step with the "Germany First" masterplan. It is likely that Britian's war aims were modified by the imperative to maintain the British Empire, and to retain enough of an army to be a significant player in the post war world. A substantial forces were tied up maintaining order in India and in Burma. The war in Europe was to be waged as economically as possible. Not quite as far as fighting to the last American, but if the US would be in the driving seat in NW Europe so why fight to the last Briton, in ordeer to be the junior partner?

British military strategy was to employ machines not men, expending steel not blood. Thus one million Britons were engaged in manufacturing and operatign the Avro Lancaster, just one of the heavy bombers. Britian had the most tank heavy army of the combatants, at one point, in 1942-43 reorganising all infantry divisions to include a tank brigade. An army of panzer grenadier divisions. The reality of the war in 1944 was that more infantry was needed than tanks or AA gunners, though that was in part because of the war the Gemrans chose to fight.

There was no real shortage of manpower in the British Empire as a whole. However, there political constraints in mobilising forced for NW Europe e.g. 1. The British did not want to employ Indian or African"native troops in NW Europe, despite proving excellent sources of infantry soldiers.
2. The Australians wanted their very high qualkity troops close to home, even if misemployed by Macarthur in the backwaters.

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