In recent weeks I have been providing my readers a modest tutorial on the operational art, with an eye toward determining what makes an effective operational level military leader. Let's finish with a final look at those factors that go into determining what makes a particular commander a good one. My hope is that this discussion will further enable the casual military history enthusiast to feel more confident in evaluating for themselves which of their favorite commanders really stack up against the competition.
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Last week I discussed the operational level of war. To summarize, the operational level links strategic objectives to the tactical deployment of military assets. The operational level of war is often referred to as an art, and for good reason. Nevertheless, before we can discuss what makes planning and leading military operations on a large scale an art form we must first start with the set of rules that gives commanders from the same army a common basis of action: that being doctrine. From there we can examine some key metrics for defining sound generalship.
One of the favorite topics of alternative history (and one of the scenarios endlessly replayed in war games such as Axis & Allies and 3rd Reich) is what if Germany had attempted Operation Sea Lion. Assuming a Luftwaffe victory over the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain was Sea Lion feasible in other respects? Could Hitler have knocked the United Kingdom out of the war in the summer of 1940 or would the attempt have led to his first major defeat?
The days and weeks following the British led Eighth Army’s spring 1942 defeats at Gazala and Tobruk, followed up by the long retreat east has often been held up by some as one of the key points in the war when the Axis could have achieved perhaps a decisive victory in North Africa and severed the British Empire’s jugular at the Suez Canal.
In reality, the otherwise triumphant German General Erwin Rommel and his Panzerarmee Afrika hardly possessed the logistical backing or combat capability to accomplish such a goal.
As we celebrate yet another anniversary of the tremendous Allied victory of June 6, 1944, or D-Day, let us take a closer look at the role played by German command decisions as one element in enabling the Allied establishment of a lodgment in France. From the beginning, Germany's approach to defending against an Allied liberation of Western Europe was overshadowed by the war waged in Eastern Europe. In particular an early focus of the Wehrmacht's defensive efforts revolved around preventing special operations conducted primarily by the British.
The Battle for Kasserine Pass began on February 14, 1943 and to this day ranks as one of the worst American military performances in the twentieth century. That said, as bad as the Battle for Kasserine Pass went it could have been a lot worse. Instead, and saving the Allies from a more significant defeat, the Germans undermined their own chances to create a significant operational and even strategic level success because, in part, and as was all too common during the Second World War, they failed to create a unified command with clearly defined and agreed upon objectives.
In May of 1942 the British Eighth Army comprised 100,000 Commonwealth soldiers, well equipped, and deployed in depth west of Tobruk along a thirty-five mile frontage. U.S. Lend-Lease aid to Britain had played a prominent role in well equipping Eighth Army. For instance, the British 1st and 7th Armored Divisions included 316 American built tanks. Although 149 were the light Stuart tanks, Eighth Army also fielded more powerful tanks than did Germany, such as 167 of the American M3 "Grant" tanks. The "Grant" featured a hull mounted 75mm gun, and turret mounted 37 mm high velocity gun.
In November 1941, a lull in the year long battle between the Axis and British Commonwealth forces fighting across the North African desert finally allowed both sides to recover their strength. German General Erwin Rommel's command fielded 414 tanks, 173 German, and nine divisions (including two German divisions; the 5th Light - renamed the 21st Panzer Division on October and 15th Panzer Division) with 320 aircraft providing direct close air support.
Initially Germany approached the problems inherent in defending occupied France as largely one of preventing special operations conducted by the British. Such a German approach was understandable given Britain's best units remained tied down in North Africa during 1941-43. Nonetheless, Hitler's declaration of war on the United States, coupled with Barbarossa's defeat and the Soviet Union's resilience meant it was only a matter of time before the Anglo-American armies struck Nazi occupied Western Europe.
In October 1942 yet another tipping point had arrived in the two year battle fought between Axis armies led by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the British Eighth Army. Although at one time or another each combatant army had won an advantage over its foe, this time Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery's British Eighth Army stood ready to hammer Rommel's PanzerArmee - woefully overextended at the end of a deeply frayed line of supply across the North African desert.
The turn of events that would lead to El Alamein had begun late in the spring of 1942, when Rommel's army badly