I’m reading a great book — Brothers in Arms by James Holland. The book follows a British tank regiment, The Sherwood Rangers, from before D-Day when they landed at Normandy to VE-Day. Well-written, full of detail, and thoroughly enjoyable.
I’m halfway through, and there are several key points of the book that jump to mind with applicability to the war in Ukraine:
Logistics: As our esteemed Kos has said many times, it’s logistics that win wars. That was no less true in WW II than it is today. The Sherwood Rangers went through a prodigious amount of tank ammunition, and every round had to be trundled to the tank laager area and loaded into the tank by hand. Every other thing an army needs, from fuel to food to shoelaces — all had to be brought forward to the fighters. When the supply chains broke, the battle stopped and the tanks became vulnerable targets. That difficulty became magnified with the scope of the D-Day invasion and the subsequent sweep across Europe. While Russia struggles to supply battalion-sized units, the Allies were dealing with Army and Corps-sized units.
Ukraine has the advantage of having its supply lines fed within its own borders. The bullets put into the supply chain in Kiev travel through friendly, largely uncontested territory until reaching the frontline units. Russia struggles to keep its supply going. The difficulties of space and time in supplying from within Russia to the front lines would be daunting for a well-regulated army. It is crippling for Russia. A soldier without bullets, an artillery piece without rounds, a tank without fuel and ammo, are all waiting to be killed or captured.
There are several philosophies to supply. The best, one would think, would be where the unit needs bullets, asks for them, and gets them expeditiously. Sounds simple, right? It ain’t. Our supply specialists can tell you how many rounds a soldier will shoot in a day, how much peanut butter he will eat, and when he needs to change socks. We have honed our logistics operations to a science, and the Ukrainians are matching it, it seems. Another philosophy is to push everything forward, whether the unit needs it now or not, because that takes less thought and planning. That’s the Russian way. So, the Russians at Bakhmut might have plenty of 9mm ammo, while they’re shooting 7.62, or whatever the hell they’re using.
Ratio of Fighters to Support: Again, Kos hit it. As D-Day approached, the British Second Army was 14% infantry, 8% armored, and 43% service corps. In the 8% that was tankers were included the tank unit admin, logistics, and supply personnel. As Holland says, “It was hoped that the spear with which Second Army had landed in Normandy had a very sharp and effective point; but it also had a very long shaft.”
Maintenance: Allied units had immediate support (maintenance) units stationed well up front, just behind the leading echelons of fighters. If a tank was hit, almost immediate triage determined if it could be repaired or abandoned. The British used a mix of their own tanks and the US Sherman tanks. While that made maintenance a bit more tricky, the Sherman was basic enough that a British tank mechanic could work on it. Contrast that to the complex beasts we put on the battlefield today. You need more than mechanics, you need weapons systems specialists, electronics specialists, commo, etc. It’s a daunting task that Ukraine has been given, with all the different systems they’re fielding.
Communications: We talk about the fog of war. A well-used saying is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. It’s all true. When contact is made, the units have to be flexible enough to respond as a unit to orders from command. The Sherwood Rangers often found themselves in isolated pockets of action, each tank fighting alone, because communications sucked. They often couldn’t see beyond the muzzle of their own tank gun because of the smoke of the battlefield. If a commander can receive information, digest it, and deploy units to counter the enemy forces, all is well. But if the units can’t talk to each other and to higher and lower commands, it’s a damned shit show. I say all that by way of wondering how it is for the Russian units. Last I heard, they were trying to communicate with cellphones. How would you like to be in the thick of a fight and your phone rings with someone trying to sell you an extended warranty on your truck?
Ability to shift tactics: The Sherwood Rangers were a horse cavalry unit and only evolved to armor in the late 1930’s. They had to learn a whole new way of battle. They were deployed to Africa, where they learned to fight Rommel using desert tactics. Then they found themselves in Europe, with muddy roads, hedgerows, and relatively dense populations and villages. They had to adapt to survive. The Ukrainians have been masters of adaptation; the Russians much less so. The Russians are still using the same tactics they used in WW II, and even before. You have to give it to the Ukrainians for their flexibility.
As an example for the Sherwood Rangers, the Sherman had a 75-mm main gun that couldn’t penetrate the front armor of the Nazi tanks. The Sherman did have, though, a high rate of fire. An officer of the Rangers said, “It was absolutely essential that you shoot the first time you see any sort of target,...shoot, shoot, and keep shooting. , because it may not do him any damage, but it discourages him.” The Sherman’s rapid rate of fire supported that, and the Rangers burned through a huge amount of rounds. (See logistics, above.) Shooting first counts, while waiting for the perfect shot makes you a target if he sees you. In our Army (I guess it’s still true) we teach fire discipline. Conserve your ammo. Make every shot count. The Rangers taught just the opposite in their tank gunnery: “shoot, shoot, and keep shooting.” What that takes, though, is a trained, steady, and disciplined soldier. The Ukrainians have that. The Russians, apparently less so.
Rest and Refit: When we watch a war movie, the soldiers are in the battle from the first scene to the last. That’s not the case in warfare. Soldiers lose their combat edge in a matter of days because combat is so draining. If you have the luxury to bring them off the line, give them food and rest, and send them back in a couple of days, you keep your fighting edge. The poor sods at Bakhmut do not have that luxury, on either side.
An NCO Corps: Sergeants run the army. Oh, officers like to think we run it, but all the plans made by General Halftrack mean nothing if the Sergeant doesn’t make it happen. The Sherwood Rangers were a long-term regiment and everyone knew each other, their strengths, their weaknesses. The sergeants were experienced — if they hadn’t done it, they’d seen it done. They were able to teach new soldiers how to fight and survive, because they had fought and survived. We spent years helping the Ukrainian military develop a robust NCO corps. It’s paying dividends. The Russians don’t have that, and that hinders them in a myriad of ways. Immediately, it means that the officers have to stay forward to see what’s happening and make the soldiers execute, and that means more officers are killed. You can’t plan for the big picture if you’re shivvying Private Boris to get him to move.
Combined Operations: Armor, artillery, and infantry have to be deployed in a combined arms team. Tanks cannot survive without infantry to clear out the enemy infantry, while infantry needs armor to give them punch. Everybody needs artillery. Artillery, especially with the smart rounds of today, can take out armor, can provide counter-battery, and knock the hell out of infantry. But it all has to be coordinated. I’m not sure the Russians can do it (they can’t), and I hope like hell the Ukrainians can.
Just a few thoughts, inspired by this great book. If you like reading about WW II, I recommend it. If you’re interested in how armies fight, I recommend it. If you just want an exciting book, I recommend it.