Fortress Warfare in the Atomic Era

The invention of the atomic bomb represented mankind’s absolute mastery of the means of firepower. For military intellectuals thinking about the changing nature of land warfare after 1945, the possibility that atomic weapons might be employed tactically in a future ground war raised a number of challenging questions, the answers to which still remain unknown. While firepower had increased a thousand-fold, the means of movement on the ground remained unchanged – lorries and tanks were still the staple of the means of tactical mobility as they had been during the Second World War. The to-and-fro of the tactical pendulum appeared finally to have swung decisively in favour of firepower over manoeuvre. To combat such extremes in firepower, military theorists proposed novel schemes that would protect armies, and the societies that supported them, from the destructive power of the atom. The concepts I will describe below are an example of two such attempts to outline the possible nature of a future atomic war and appeared as articles in two of the major British Army service journals in 1946 and 1950.

The first article, ‘Nuclear Energy and War’, appeared in the United Services Institution of India Journal just six months after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This senior officer’s portrayal of future nuclear war was apocalyptic to say the least and reads more like a science fiction novel rather than a practical exposition of possible future trends in warfare. The author argued that since a belligerent would be capable of launching a surprise strategic attack using nuclear-tipped long-range rockets, ‘the only safe place tomorrow is below the surface of the world’. He envisioned whole populations living in deep catacombs under the ground and under the sea within which all means of human sustenance would be provided for – farmland, industrial centres, schools, and churches etc. The so-called ‘Underneath’s’ (very original) would become an organic part of a wider self-sufficient fortress system which, in times of war would provide defensive bastions for its denizens, akin to the castles of old. From these fortresses would be launched nuclear rockets and missiles, the sole aim of which was to smash the opposing side’s nuclear power potential by destroying its nuclear industries and means of production. At some point it may be necessary to send assault troops into the underground labyrinths of the oppositions fortress system, in which case airborne forces would be employed since the surface of the earth would be nothing but a radioactive no-man’s-land. Whether this assault would be successful or not is rather a moot point, however, because the outcome of such a war was predicted to be mass starvation.

Four years later the winner of the Bertrand Stewart Prize Essay for 1950 envisioned a war of a similar nature. The author, a Major in the Royal Engineers, wrote that a future war involving the tactical application of nuclear weapons would see the arrival of extreme positional warfare since the increase in battlefield firepower would favour the defence against ground attack. Static defences would not be along the lines as those of say 1914-18, however, but would take the form of deep fortress positions, dug deep into mountain ranges from which mobile strike forces would operate resembling ‘position warfare of the Middle Ages, as it was understood and practiced by Marlborough and Saxe’. Borrowing ideas from ‘Nuclear Energy and War’, the author imagined the world’s surface being divided into ‘Heartlands’ (where farmland, raw material and industrial centres would be contained), ‘Defended Zones’ (the outposts of defence of the Heartlands), and ‘Battle Zones’ (a radioactive wasteland interspersed with fortresses where the actual fighting would take place). These zones would be on a continental scale, not dissimilar to the super-states described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which had been published the year before.

Of course, these were extreme and fantastical theories of war that were utterly detached from the economic and political realities of rational defence-policy making. It is clear that no potentate, even a fanatic one, let alone any democratic leader, would have let loose such a dreadful holocaust upon the world. Still, the revolutionary development of atomic weapons required an equally innovative and radical revolution in military thought, and if nothing else, these articles served to challenge conservative thinking within the officer corps which gave birth to other more ‘practical’ concepts for atomic land war.