Monday 14 January 2013

Myths And Realities Losses And Gains

The “Golden Globes” presentations in Los Angeles have me breaking out in the first symptoms of Chronic Awards Fatigue of the year.  There is no doubt about the amount of thought, energy, effort and the rest the performers put into their productions  Nor is there doubt about the importance of crucial favourable publicity to their status and incomes.

It is that there are many awards ceremonies to come and a great deal of media time and effort to be expended in speculations about outcomes, gossip, news, the events themselves and the publicity follow ups.  We are supposed to lap this up and allow it the importance that the media outlets insist that it should have.

Not only does it distract us and more to the point deflect us from attention on other matters but it means that there is a lot out there we should know more about which gets little or no mention.  There is nothing new about this.  Myths have long been more important than realities.

In the histories of the Second World War there is sometimes reference to the equipment our troops were given to do their fighting but often not critical enough and without making the point that some of the inadequacies had the effect of lengthening the war.

On BBC2 in the last couple of weeks there have been two programmes following the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, “The Filthy Fifth”, 5RTR, a unit which went from Egypt and El Alamein in The Desert War, into Italy and then to be amongst the first to land in Normandy in June 1944. 

It was part of the 7th Armoured Division, whose tac sign was the Jerboa, better known as The Desert Rat.  It was said that only fifty men of the originals were still there at the end.

At least the presenter, Mark Urban, had served in the Army and knew the inside of a tank and with the few veterans left managed to put across both the reality of war with a critique of the situations that the men were faced with and how they were equipped to do so.

A key part of the story was the various tanks 5RTR were given.  What was clear was that throughout the war the British designed and built tanks were inadequate for the task, vulnerable in battle and cost many lives.  At the stages when the tanks were either American built or formed the basis, it was better.

When in 1943 5RTR were brought back to East Anglia to prepare for the Normandy Landings they were dismayed to be issued with the new Cromwell tank which was still not capable of taking on the German Tigers and moreover a death trap.  When in France heavy losses were sustained.

Also, the German anti-tank artillery was superior enabling them to have tactical advantages.  The reason why the Allies progressed was that they could replace both the equipment and the men quickly whereas the Germans could not.  But the progress was a lot slower than it might have been.

Had the UK Armoured Divisions been equipped with both tanks and related artillery that at least matched the Germans what might have happened?  The Desert War might have been a lot shorter for one.  More important the British may have been able to break out from the Normandy Landings much earlier than they did and to cross the Rhine before the winter of 1944 to 1945 set in.

Eventually, the UK government did come up with a decent tank, the Centurion, but that first appeared just after the War ended.  Had a tank like this been coming out of the factories three or so years earlier the war might have been different. 

Why were the British tanks so poor?  Why did it take so long for the British to design and produce something better?  The reality was that many brave men were left to make the best of second rate weaponry and winning depended not on what they had to fight with but the ability to replace the losses.

At the end of the war there were many ceremonies and many awards given and hard earned ones.  There was all the publicity of victory and the myths of our supremacy.  The men were good enough but the way they were equipped and treated by the government was another matter.

Not much changes.


  1. Why were the British tanks so poor?

    From my extensive reading of military & other history I think a fairly clear but simplistic answer is as follows: After WWI the UK was broke, just as after WWII and there was a mindset to avoid war, hence the League of Nations, great reduction of the military services and determination to spend as little as possible on what remained. While we had at least two analysts who publicised arguments that called for major R&D on armoured vehicles and major revision of tactical doctrine, the freeze on spending (and other, cultural, factors) inhibited modernization until it could no longer be avoided (ca 1936) when Chamberlain (who deserves more credit than he receives for this) started rearmament. In the low-spending years tank design, manufacture and testing was naturally inadequate and for all the reasons combined too little was learned by those in command to issue, in good-enough time, what (with hindsight) can be seen as adequate specifications. Moreover, the heavy armament designers & manufacturers lacked the skills and facilities needed even if the money had been there.

  2. The russians seemed to get the right sort of tanks quite fast and they were not rich or ready.