A must read for anybody interested in getting under the skin of Cold Warriors on both sides of the iron curtain is this new study on operational planning in NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Blueprints for Battle, originally published by the German Armed Forces Military History Research Institute, and translated into English by noted military historian Major-General (ret’d) David Zabecki, does exactly what it says on the tin and provides an in-depth account of the operational plans of the various military organisations of the two power blocs during the height of the Cold War. My review of the book has been published by the Second World War Military Operations Research Group. Follow the link below:
In September 1956, 250 British and Commonwealth officers attended the first of the British BUFFALO nuclear weapon tests at Maralinga, Australia. The object of their ‘indoctrination’ was to give them a better idea of the nature and possibilities of nuclear warfare. In order to ascertain whether any measurable change had occurred in the attitude of the Indoctrinees towards nuclear weapons as a result of their experiences, the British Army Operational Research Group devised a pre-bomb and post-bomb questionnaire that was to be completed by the attending officers. The answers provide some fascinating insights into the minds of soldiers who had to ply their deadly trade under the looming shadow of the atom.
After a short delay, during which time some of the more impatient officers were reported as being extremely ‘browned-off’, the Indoctrinees were finally treated to not one, but two nuclear explosions. The yield of the first bomb was measured at 12.5 KT, the second 10 KT. In general, the officers appeared to be impressed by the flash and heat-wave of the nuclear explosion, but were underwhelmed by the noise and the blast from their viewing platform 5 ½ miles away. I’m not sure what they were hoping for, perhaps a good old fashioned 20 kilo-tonner would have done it for them? Nonetheless, the Army Operational Research Group promptly distributed the questionnaires. The questions were designed to assess the Indoctrinees knowledge of, and attitudes towards, nuclear weapons. One of the questions asked was:
Lying down in the open on fairly flat ground, would you rather be:
a) 2 miles from a 20 KT bomb explosion
b) 400 yards from a 2000-lb HE bomb explosion
c) 50 yards from a 25-pr HE shell explosion
*Also, put a cross (x) under the one you dislike the most *
None of the above? Unsurprisingly, the majority of the participants ‘disliked’ nuclear weapons much more after experiencing the explosions. Another questions asked:
If you were an Army Commander who required a blitz on an enemy concentration 4 miles behind their front lines, which would you prefer as the most likely to achieve your object:
a) An atomic missile
b) A HE bomb air attack of equivalent explosive force
c) Heavy artillery bombardment of equivalent explosive force
94% of the Indoctrinees answered that an atomic missile would be the best tool for the rather difficult job of blitzing the enemy position. The pre-bomb answers had shown that 84% of the officers would have chosen the atomic missile, however. The atom was certainly becoming conventionalized in the minds of the officer corps. Considering the British Army of the Rhine’s nuclear posture in Central Europe during this period, the acceptance of all things nuclear would have certainly been pleasing news for the Army Council. Yet, curiously another set of answers indicated that the majority of officers who witnessed the explosions believed that nuclear weapons would make war as an ‘art’ much more difficult. This is not the place to argue whether war is more akin to an art or a science (not now, Carl), but it does highlight the complexities and uncertainties that surrounded the profession of arms during the nuclear era.
I discover many remarkable and peculiar concepts while conducting my research, two of which are outlined below, but few are as colourful as the ‘Nuclear Legion’. This was a 1959 proposal by a Colonel in the REME for the radical recasting of the Army structure. It was a simple organisation that would allow combat units to fight effectively with a nuclear potential without the need to rely on complex administrative and supply echelons, which many officers thought would become vulnerable to atomisation in a nuclear ground war.
Essentially, the Nuclear Legion would consist of three main elements – a combined tank and self-propelled gun called Romulus, an all-purpose carrier called Remus, and a helicopter. The vital statistics were as follows:
Weight: 26-28 tons.
Armour: Equal to a conventional heavy tank (of the Centurion type).
Gun: Calibre and chamber pressure at a minimum to allow it to fire nuclear shells.
Ammunition: HE for tank and conventional roles. Nuclear for assault and ‘annihilation’ roles.
Weight: 8 tons.
Protection: Shell burst and nuclear.
Payload: 2 crew, 10 personnel.
Trailer: 10 personnel or equivalent load.
Since the entire Legion would be carried by either Romulus or Remus, it would have no other type of vehicle in its first echelon, and therefore, would be completely mobile and independent of all roads and would be air supplied in combat by helicopters. The sharp end of the Legion would consist of 20 Romulus and a 132 man infantry company mounted in 11 Remus. Considering each Romulus could carry a number of 15kt nuclear shells, this formation could pack a serious punch. If that wasn’t enough, heavy nuclear support in the megaton range would be provided by tactical air. In war, the simple aim of the Nuclear Legion was ‘to defeat and destroy completely the enemy army in the theatre of war’. To achieve this it would ‘encircle the enemy, destroy his command and communications and then manoeuvre him into a position where he can be annihilated by nuclear firepower’. There is no doubt the Legion would be extremely adept in this role. Its drawback would probably be that it would destroy the theatre of operations along with the enemy army that was unfortunate enough to be caught in it.
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.
Hidden in the depths of the archives of the Ministry of Defence is an interesting memorandum that was sent by Field-Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery to the British Chiefs of Staff not long after he became Chairman of the Western Union’s Commanders-in-Chief Committee. The memo lamented the parlous state of the newly established NATO alliance’s defensive preparations in Continental Europe and warned that the West was ‘drifting to disaster’ if nothing was done to alleviate the situation. Dated 30 March 1950, three months before the outbreak of the Korean War, the document reveals in candid detail the private thoughts of an international soldier, a Cold Warrior, during an uneasy period of international tension when the world’s gaze fixated on the cockpit of the Cold War in Europe.
‘Today, the prospects for the future… are gloomy’ the memo began, in that forthright manner so typical of Montgomery. ‘If responsible Ministers knew the true facts they would have cause for the gravest anxiety. If the peoples of Western Europe, and the Press, knew the true facts the results would be catastrophic’. Clearly, not all was well on the Western Front. The problem, Montgomery believed, was a lack of effective mechanisms for joint defence. This was due in large part, he argued, because HM Government was reluctant to state its intentions with regards to European defence. Indeed, the major strategic debates that raged throughout Whitehall during this period centred on the question of what level of military commitment, if any, Britain should make to Continental defence. Britain had agreed to deploy token land and air forces in Germany with the signing of the NATO treaty in 1949 (with, of course, a number of get-out clauses) but, in essence, this was a hollow commitment to protect the peoples of Western Europe if the Red Army rolled across the intra-German border, and had the more politically shrewd intentions of keeping the Americans in Europe, the French happy, and the Germans down.
This was not lost on Montgomery: ‘Europe still waits to know what the British intend to do and, not being able to find out, she assumes they do not mean business’. What the Chairman wanted was a firm commitment from British Ministers that they would dispatch reinforcements if the Cold War heated up. Yet, this would cost money, a commodity in short supply, and it would take more than the pleas of a mere soldier, however decorated and respected, to loosen the Treasury’s grip on the public purse. There were also sound strategic reasons that would make it difficult to dispatch troops to a beleaguered Europe if World War III commenced (see the post on plan SPEEDWAY), but these were by no means insurmountable; the proverbial money talked, and strategic sense walked in 1950s Britain. Ultimately, nobody knew what would happen if the Kremlin ordered its armies to march to the Channel. As Montgomery succinctly puts it in the memo, ‘we have a paper plan. But it is of no practical value and is completely inoperable’.
To make matters worse, the French Army, long seen as being the hard core of the West’s land forces, was in disarray. Here, Montgomery saved his most cutting remarks. The French Army, he stated, still operated on the outdated concept of the levee en masse,was riddled with corruption, possessed senior officers that were completely ignorant about the conduct of modern warfare, and had a training organisation that ‘would be laughable, if it were not pathetic’. Not until a ‘national figure with knowledge, experience and prestige is placed in charge of it’ did Montgomery believe the French Army would ever improve. For those reasons, Montgomery made the bold suggestion that the Alliance’s only hope was to raise national German armed forces. Of course, this did eventually come about five years later, but in 1950 this was unthinkable. If anything, this illustrates how dire the situation really was.
I think this document illustrates the mismatch between official British government policy vis-à-vis European defence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the military reality on the ground. During this period national resources for defence, rightly or wrongly, were channelled into the development of an independent nuclear deterrent. Conventional forces contracted considerably and deterrence, not defence, became the cornerstone of British defence policy. Thankfully, Montgomery need not have worried, for the Russians never did put to the test the defensive preparations of the West. Yet, I certainly, like Montgomery, would not have liked to be sat in Brussels if they had.
Having noticed a distinct lack of images on this blog, I thought I would share with you this picture from the Imperial War Museum’s British Army 1945-2000 collection. It depicts Cadets from the Chard School Army Cadet Force, Somerset, being shown the Douglas Aircraft MGR 1 ‘Honest John’ free flight rocket at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. There is no date, but a reader of this blog places it circa 1959/60.
Honest John was the first nuclear-capable surface-to-surface rocket to enter the armouries of the United States and became the backbone of NATO tactical nuclear strike capabilities throughout the 1950s. Honest John was capable of firing a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead at a range of up to 15 miles. Around the same yield as ‘Fat Man’, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, this was a weapon that could deal out major damage (see the post ‘What’s in a Name’ on this blog for issues surrounding the classification of nuclear weapons). One wonders what would have been going through the young Cadets’ minds as they contemplated service in Britain’s atomic Army.
While I was conducting research in the National Archives recently I came across a rather curious document from 1948. This particular memorandum by the British Chiefs of Staff outlines a joint Anglo-American strategic plan, codenamed SPEEDWAY, for if war broke out with the Soviet Union on or before 1950. I have come across plan SPEEDWAY before, as it crops up now and again in the literature. However, not until now have I been able to cast my own eyes upon it. I think plan SPEEDWAY makes for very interesting reading in that it highlights just how precarious the military balance was between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during the immediate post-war years. In turn, it shows how British and American anxieties about Soviet conventional superiority, both real and imagined, played an important role in shaping thinking about nuclear weapons in those nations.
Plan SPEEDWAY worked on the assumption that at the start of a major war the Soviet Union would launch two major offensives in the Middle East and mainland Europe in addition to mounting other minor actions elsewhere. The Western Allies would be thrown immediately on the defensive, and the only offensive action which they could hope to take strategically in the early stages of the war was from the air. The burden of these strategic missions would fall on the US Air Force since it was the only Service which possessed ‘the equipment required for this task’ i.e., atomic weapons. This air offensive would be carried out by 400 atomic-armed US heavy bombers, operating out of the UK, Egypt, and Okinawa, and would be supported by a smaller force of 160 British medium bombers which did not possess the necessary range to conduct operations over Russia.
The primary task of this combined bomber force was to assist in the defence of the Middle East and the UK. Atomic weapons would have been employed from the outset, although the Chiefs of Staff were uncertain as to how many bombs would be made available, that guarded information remained with their American counterparts. What was clear was that the Allied air forces would not be strong enough to prevent a Russian build-up in Western Europe and at the same time slow an advance in the Middle East.
The situation on the ground looked equally bleak. As British and American airmen took to the skies, soldiers would be fighting a hard battle on the ground. In Western Europe, a total of 11 Allied divisions and 500 tactical aircraft would confront an estimated attacking force of 50 Soviet divisions and 6,000 tactical aircraft. Foreseeing later NATO doctrine, Allied land forces would adopt a Forward Strategy and mount a defence on the Rhine for as long as they could holdout. Considering the lopsided nature of the military balance, however, it is not surprising that the Chiefs of Staff arrived at their rather frank conclusion that ‘if the enemy presses his attack we cannot hold Western Europe’.
Likewise, forces in the Middle East were small – 3 scratch divisions and 300 combat aircraft – and it was unlikely that they could prevent loosing territory and oil. The plan for naval forces appeared more optimistic, yet bittersweet. The Chiefs’ were certain that the Allies had the sufficient strength and skill to keep open the sea lanes of communication and protect its shipping, however, by the time Western Europe was overrun, Soviet tactical aircraft would join the naval-air forces to constitute a serious threat to the approaches to the UK and in the Mediterranean.
Airpower was now seen as the greatest threat. A corollary of this was that the defence of Europe was becoming to be seen as a prerequisite to the successful defence of the UK home islands. If the enemy’s air forces were not held as far to the east as possible, then this would invite air attacks from fixed positions in the Low Countries and Northern France.
So that, in essence, is plan SPEEDWAY. So, what was the predicted outcome if the plan had been implemented in say 1950? If you have not guessed already, it did not look good for the British. The Chiefs of Staff offered two potential outcomes to such a war which would ‘lie between the two extremes of such complete success of the atomic offensive…or failure of the offensive to prevent a critical air situation developing in the UK’. These were not particularly nice outcomes for anybody involved. Yet, the faith in atomic airpower would remain steady throughout the 1950s as nuclear weapons became increasingly to be seen as a panacea to many of the West’s strategic dilemmas.