Montgomery and the ‘Defence’ of the West

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.

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Plan SPEEDWAY, 1948

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.