British Troops Inferior?

Discussion in 'NW Europe' started by adamcotton, Nov 7, 2005.

  1. adamcotton

    adamcotton Senior Member

    Anyone listen to the radio interview of John Simpson by Michael Parkinson yesterday lunchtime ( Sun 6th November)? In it, Simpson, who has just brought out a new volume of his memoirs, voiced the opinion - formed over a number of years and supplemented by personal research - that the citizen soldierhood of Britain in WW2 was not the hard fighting, determined entity popular mythologising suggests. Indeed, says he, whenever and wherever the British Army came up against the Wermacht - and assuming all things being equal - they were always beaten! Only later in the war, when they had superior numbers and better equipment than the enemy - so things were far from equal - were they able to achieve victories.

    Moreover, Britain's army was not willing to fight to the death, preferring surrender, unlike the Americans and Axis armies, perhaps as a result of its experiences in the First world War....

    Anyone care to comment?
     
  2. spidge

    spidge RAAF RESEARCHER

    (adamcotton @ Nov 7 2005, 11:15 PM) [post=41191]Anyone listen to the radio interview of John Simpson by Michael Parkinson yesterday lunchtime ( Sun 6th November)? In it, Simpson, who has just brought out a new volume of his memoirs, voiced the opinion - formed over a number of years and supplemented by personal research - that the citizen soldierhood of Britain in WW2 was not the hard fighting, determined entity popular mythologising suggests. Indeed, says he, whenever and wherever the British Army came up against the Wermacht - and assuming all things being equal - they were always beaten! Only later in the war, when they had superior numbers and better equipment than the enemy - so things were far from equal - were they able to achieve victories.

    Moreover, Britain's army was not willing to fight to the death, preferring surrender, unlike the Americans and Axis armies, perhaps as a result of its experiences in the First world War....

    Anyone care to comment?
    [/b]

    Was he making a generalised statement (as it seems he was) or did he quote correlating actions and the opposing numbers? That is where and when!
     
  3. morse1001

    morse1001 Very Senior Member

    I am sure it is a sweeping statement based upon limited information. However, Len Deigton in his book on the batle of Britain mentions incidents which shows that they so called BofB spirit was a wartime myth.
     
  4. Gerard

    Gerard Seelow/Prora

    I would not entirely disregard the views stated. It is true that El Alamein was the one Land Battle were the British defeated the Germans by themselves, and indeed the Battle of Britain should also be included. I wouldnt doubt that the Bof B spirit was somewhat of a myth though. As regards the effect of WWI well he has a point although I would have thought that it affected the French army circ 1940 more especially in terms of morale
     
  5. adamcotton

    adamcotton Senior Member

    Simpson didn't mention any particular specifics, except a brief reference to the British surrender to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. He added sentiments that Britain certainly wasn't the "home of the brave" in 1943, but seemed ignorant of the fact that British "caution" was endemic to a nation with limited resources. America had vast reserves of men and materiel, the Japanese were imbued with the fantaticism of the Samurai code, the Wermacht - in defence - were fighting for their very existence, and the Russian leadership was simply profligate with the expenditure of human life. In comparison, I imagine the Briitsh "Tommy" and his generals would seem to have less stomach for the fight....but could the BEF's defeat in 1940 be attributable to that fact? I doubt it.

    Len Deighton's book on the Battle of Britain, "Fighter", which I read many years ago, does attempt to explode the myth of the Battle of Britain spirit, but in my view is unbalanced and biased. It focuses on too many small and unsavoury incidents in an endeavour to prove its point, but neglecting to address the bigger picture.
     
  6. Gibbo

    Gibbo Senior Member

    Although Len Deighton tries, with mixed results in my view, to explode many myths surrounding the Battle of Britain, he does state that 'Just by remaining intact, Fighter Command had won the Battle of Britain.' His criticisms of the RAF are of the Air Staff & Leigh Mallory's big wing' tactics. He praises the men who fought the battle, Dowding, Park & their fighter pilots. I think that the marketing of this book has created some myths of its own.

    While I'm on the subject of myths, El Alamein wasn't Britain's first land victory over Germany. Operation Crusader didn't achieve all its objectives & Britain suffered more casualties than Germany but the Afrika Korps was pushed a long way back.

    Overall, the British army suffered more defeats than victories in the first half of the war but, as far as I am aware, all can be attributed to poor tactics, generalship or equipment or lack of numbers. The only British defeat that I've ever heard attributed to lack of fighting spirit by British soldiers is Singapore. If Germans are to be praised for their fighting spirit in defeat, then what about the British paras at Arnhem?
     
  7. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    What a load of utter bull! from my experience the British soldier is the best in the world. bar none.Why is it when they want to sell a book they have to run down our own men?

    Just plain bull......from Sword Beach onwards we never took a backward step, not for anyone. I have never heard such complete crap, If you think otherwise? ask the Germans! They concentrated their panzers around the British troops. WHY? they knew were the real scrappers were situtated...The rest? half a Panzer div was deemed good enough.
    So come off it........From all that I saw, I can only have an immense pride in the fighting quality of the British,, I would challenge anyone to tell that to the Black Watch, the KOSBs, the Airborne, Suffolks, East Yorks . South Lancs, the Warwicks, any of that gallant tribe that took on and destroyed the might of the SS Panzers. Absolute bull.
    Come near me and say that, and you will be walking about a crutch hanging out the back of your trousers!

    Consider the RE that removed the explosives off the beach defences, when the tide came in, they continued to swim while removing them and many drowned, givng their lives for the success of the invasion.

    To accuse the British of not giving their best is to insult their memory. It just goes to show just how bloody ignorant some of these people are...Obviously been reading to many comics
    British soldiers? second to none.
    Sapper
     
  8. Des1

    Des1 Junior Member

    I'm afraid Simpson is not saying anything new on the subject. I've read several books which have made this point - some by historical writers, some memoirs of troops who actually fought.

    With respect to surrendering ... I don't think Simpson, if he is being quoted correctly, could possibly say that American troops were less likely to surrender than the British. That IS a load of bull.

    Remember British WW2 soldiers were a much more sophisticated, unionised, educated bunch than their fathers of WW1. They were also soldiers of a democratic nation which did not try to create brainwashed nationalistic ubermen or draw on the code of Bushido.
    They very fact that they were less likely to 'stand and die' is something which is worth consideration on a careful basis. If they had been brainwashed to 'stand and die' for fear of being shot (or their families shot) by their own side ... would they not have been fighting for a cause equally abhorrent as Fascism/Nazism?
    They were ordinary blokes and some fought well and some did not. A lot of them were there because they had no choice.

    I found Max Hasting's Armageddon very good in dealing with this very topic in a sensible way.
    Des

    I also have to say that the real damage to the Panzer Divs was inflicted by the allied air forces. Another book which makes this point is Lt. Col. Colin Mitchell's 'Having Been a Soldier' .. talking of Italy in the very late stages of the war, he states that German defence was far more tenacious and skilfull than anything he could have imagined.
     
  9. jimbotosome

    jimbotosome Discharged

    Wouldn't the primary requirement of determining if an army is "inferior" to another, be seeing that army lose to the other in battle rather than defeat them?

    A more objective measurement might be to measure the time the tanks spent in "reverse" and judge an army's moxie based on that.
     
  10. adamcotton

    adamcotton Senior Member

    Jimbo, I think you are missing the point here! Simpsaon was suggesting that the British Army was inferior precisely because it was defeated more often than it was victorious, and by implication its tanks spent more time in retreat than advance. Not saying Simpson was right, merely reporting what he said.....
     
  11. Gibbo

    Gibbo Senior Member

    The German army mostly beat the British one until El Alamein, with a few exceptions such as Operation Crusader. After then, the Germans usually lost, again with a few exceptions such as Operation Market Garden. The first significant land combat between the 2 armies was when the Allies landed in Norway on 14 April 1940. The half way point between then & the end of the war on 8 May 1945 is 26 October 1942, 3 days after the start of the 12 day battle of El Alamein. Sounds to me as if the British army won for as long as it lost & Simpson should take arithmetic lessons.
     
  12. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Amazing the rubbish that is churned out...much of it so far from the truth that it is quite honestly Hideous. What we Veterans have to read about ourselves so often these days, is just plain stupid...Not only stupid, but utterly dishonest.. it is also a horrible insult to the men that gave their lives in battle.

    I have seen British men walk resolutely forward through a drenching hail of fire. One exceptional instance.. the advance of the "Royal Ulster Rifles" raw courage seldom seen....A disciplined advance that very few nations would have the sheer bloody courage to take on. Bonny Lads!

    I saw what happened in "The Bloodiest Square Mile in Normandy" hand to hand stuff. I took part in the Goodwood battles, and Falaise, from Sword Beach to the German border. Never a backward step


    I have witness battles so bloody ferocious that both German and British died virtually at each others throats, La Bisley wood being one. I have taken part in assaults that were mind boggling.....

    Dont ever believe the idiot that claims the British were not the best, they were. I have no wish to stir up old wounds.....But this is too much of an insult to let go.....
    Sapper
     
  13. Des1

    Des1 Junior Member

    I think it is also worth contrasting the nature of war on the 'Western Front WW2' to the Eastern Front WW2' - Could I argue that the Wehrmahct put up a much stiffer fight against the Russians (for very obvious reasons given their record in the Soviet Union) than they did against the western allies?
    By the way I'm not an apologist for the Wehrmacht, nor am I running down the British army .. I just think perspective plays a part in this.
    Man to man inferiority/superiority does not sit well with me.
    Industrial capability .... that's where the war was won. My opinion.
     
  14. jimbotosome

    jimbotosome Discharged

    (sapper @ Nov 7 2005, 03:34 PM) [post=41243]Dont ever believe the idiot that claims the British were not the best, they were. I have no wish to stir up old wounds.....But this is too much of an insult to let go.....
    Sapper
    [/b]
    Well, I don't know if the Brits were the best or not, but they wouldn't be worth their salt if they didn't believe they were. Here stateside, I have never heard the average Joe that likes WWII speak of the Brits in manner anyway but honorable and courageous. That’s not a reputation that comes for the grassroots Yank.

    But if the Brits lost battles with numbers and superior weapons (Shermans vs Tiger?) then how did they manage to win the war? Did he have a theory on that?
     
  15. No.9

    No.9 Senior Member

    John Fiddler Simpson, born 9 August 1944, grew up London and Suffolk, educated at St Paul's School (a quality secondary school), and Magdalene College, Cambridge where he read English and edited the magazine Granta.
    [​IMG]
    Joined the BBC as a tea-boy and worked his way up to World Affairs Editor. 30 Years of quality coverage of world conflicts, but, nowhere in any profile or CV does it state he's a student of history, let alone military history.

    Simpson is probably my favourite war reporter, with acknowledgement of the crew with him at his end and the producer and editor at this end. His report from Iraq when the American 'Special Forces' called in an air-strike on themselves, and John's translator was killed, was quite exceptional.

    However, I can't see anything in his background to suggest he's any form of authority on W.W.II? If such a sweeping statement had come from say AJP Taylor or MRD Foot, then it would merit serious consideration. I would have thought that a basic knowledge of W.W.II shows Britain and the Commonwealth were neither prepared for another war, nor wanted one. It appears often forgotten that we are an island. Our formidable natural defence shapes our strategy, not least that no one can just roll across our border, but then we can't just roll over theirs. Britain strove to take the war to the enemy but had to devote resources in expectation of the war being brought to us.

    I can't see what Simpson is getting on about 'assuming all things were equal' we were beaten, if all things were 'equal' we whipped 'em every time, and usually did so when we were the underdog - which happened quite a lot. Simpson needs to qualify 'equal'. A general rule of war is that you should have a 3 to 1 advantage when you attack. Oh that we always had such a luxury.

    Perhaps someone should remind Simpson that this tiny island raised its colours over more than a third of the globe. Even today no one seriously wants to pick a fight with us, and any country that does experiences a dramatic rise in demand for incontinence pads?

    No.9
     
  16. adamcotton

    adamcotton Senior Member

    Sapper - I can well appreciate your indignation and vexation! Sadly, it is often true that history is written in hindsight by people who were never there. I have often wondered how much of what we read of other battles in other wars - Waterloo, Agincourt, Crecy - is actually true. Fortunately, at least your generation can make its voice heard on forums like this, which have an international readership, and correct half-truths and lies!
     
  17. angie999

    angie999 Very Senior Member

    (No.9 @ Nov 8 2005, 03:04 AM) [post=41259]AJP Taylor or MRD Foot[/b]

    Personally, I would not rate either of them as military historians.

    Taylor, whose work is now becoming very dated, specialised in diplomatic history and Foot in the history of intelligence, notably SOE.

    I have not read Simpson, but in some ways his work seems to be following Max Hastings back when he wrote "Overlord" over 20 years ago, but Hastings revised his position - to a degree - in "Armageddon", published last year.
     
  18. spidge

    spidge RAAF RESEARCHER

    (No.9 @ Nov 8 2005, 02:04 PM) [post=41259]John Fiddler Simpson, born 9 August 1944, grew up London and Suffolk, educated at St Paul's School (a quality secondary school), and Magdalene College, Cambridge where he read English and edited the magazine Granta.
    [​IMG]
    Joined the BBC as a tea-boy and worked his way up to World Affairs Editor. 30 Years of quality coverage of world conflicts, but, nowhere in any profile or CV does it state he's a student of history, let alone military history.

    Simpson is probably my favourite war reporter, with acknowledgement of the crew with him at his end and the producer and editor at this end. His report from Iraq when the American 'Special Forces' called in an air-strike on themselves, and John's translator was killed, was quite exceptional.

    However, I can't see anything in his background to suggest he's any form of authority on W.W.II? If such a sweeping statement had come from say AJP Taylor or MRD Foot, then it would merit serious consideration. I would have thought that a basic knowledge of W.W.II shows Britain and the Commonwealth were neither prepared for another war, nor wanted one. It appears often forgotten that we are an island. Our formidable natural defence shapes our strategy, not least that no one can just roll across our border, but then we can't just roll over theirs. Britain strove to take the war to the enemy but had to devote resources in expectation of the war being brought to us.

    I can't see what Simpson is getting on about 'assuming all things were equal' we were beaten, if all things were 'equal' we whipped 'em every time, and usually did so when we were the underdog - which happened quite a lot. Simpson needs to qualify 'equal'. A general rule of war is that you should have a 3 to 1 advantage when you attack. Oh that we always had such a luxury.

    Perhaps someone should remind Simpson that this tiny island raised its colours over more than a third of the globe. Even today no one seriously wants to pick a fight with us, and any country that does experiences a dramatic rise in demand for incontinence pads?

    No.9
    [/b]

    I agree with you and not with him hence my very short question in post number #2.

    Was he making a generalised statement (as it seems he was) or did he quote correlating actions and the opposing numbers? That is where and when!

    Show us the proof which is grounds for "his" interpretation. Dunkirk was a retreat sure, Singapore was a disgrace and lack of intestinal fortitude and Generalship on behalf of the British Command who failed miserably in providing their troops with the ability to fight. Bad planning, bad planning and more bad planning.

    The Australian 6th division arrived in North Africa without weapons for Christ sake however they were blessed with O'Connor who was a brilliant General.

    By putting down the Brits he is also putting down the Aussies and the other Commonwealth forces as they fought side by side in many actions.

    Churchill was responsible for the Greece and Crete catastrophes as the force was undermanned and under supplied and they all fought their guts out to no avail in the end.

    SHOW US THE PROOF AND THE FIGURES MR SIMPSON...........
     
  19. sapper

    sapper WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    What angers me so much is the absolute stupidity of accusing the men that conquered the World to create the British Empire. Or men like the “Old Contemptibles” that held the weight of the German army at bay in WW1. Out numbered, but held by outstanding courage!
    I have seen such examples of sheer undaunted courage, far and away what could be expected under even the most fierce battle conditions.

    I was at Pegasus Bridge just after it was taken by the Coup de main by our Glider forces. I took part in the Goodwood battles where we lost 400 tanks. In that great drive round the City of Caen….I have been into battle with the Guards Armoured,

    Now don’t talk to me about the British troops not being top class. Bloody rubbish!
    We sorted out the Fanatics of the SS and beat them fair and square, despite our inferior equipment… What we did have was superior courage, and the will to win.

    If anyone is in any doubt about that they should have seen the inside of the Falaise pocket! That would soon change their minds.
    Sapper
     
  20. angie999

    angie999 Very Senior Member

    I think we have to be very careful here to try and be objective.

    As we seem to be concentrating on the Normandy campaign, we have to consider the state of the various armies as they were in 1944 and not earlier in the war.

    The German Army

    In my opinion, the British were no match for the Germans in 1940, in the Western Desery before 1942, or in Greece and Crete. In many respects, the British were at that point still developing from a small peacetime army into a large conscript force and much was left to do, whereas the Germans were at or near their peak. None the less, the British were not desively beaten in the field in 1940, because Dunkirk etc. was the result of the French collapse in the face of the Panzer divisions.

    The German army was probably at its peak when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but as a result of defeats like Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk and three years of attrition, it was past this peak by June 1944. The result, however, was not a uniform deterioration in performance. To a large extent, the Panzer units, many of the field divisions and specialists like the paratroopers (actually part of the Luftwaffe) maintained thir performance to a high degree. On the other hand, there were many inferior units, like the coastal divisions, many of the "Ost" units, the "stomach battalions" and so forth.

    The American Army

    Like the British, the majority of Amrican troops engaged in Normandy had not seen action before, with exceptions like 1st Infantry, 82nd Airborne, etc. Many of the troops who took part in Normandy had undergone long training and had good unit cohesion and the army was probably at its peak. Even so, some units (90th Infantry for instance) consistently underperformed and many commanders were sacked. They never really had time to "play themselves in" (a cricket term which Brits will understand). And in particular the system of not relieving units in the line and providing very raw replacements(half trained at best in many cases) was lamentably bad, leading to major changes in approach after the war.

    As time went on, there were growing and significant problems in this respect in the American Army and by May 1945 it was probably well below the performance levels of June 1944.

    The British Army

    Like the Americans, many of the British and Canadian divisions in Normandy had been preparing for it for a long time, but had seen little or no action since 1940. There were exceptions (7th Armoured, 50th (Northumbrian), 51st (Highland) for example), but even here there had been some rotation of battalions out of these divisions and replacement with less experienced ones.

    Performance in the Normandy campaign was not uniformally good. For instance, 7th Armoured is often criticised.

    There were also issues with the quality of British replacements, but one of the biggest problems was keeping units at acceptable strength due to the lack of replacements, leading later to units being broken up.

    Overall, though, by 1944 the British Army was probably at or near its peak.

    The Campaign

    The German Panzers were not drawn onto the British front because they were fighting the British, but because the main threat to the Germans was always going to be the allied left. If the British and American forces had landed the other way round, then the Americans would have faced the Panzers.

    Until the breakout (American front) and the effective destruction of the German forces in the Falaise pocket (an allied effort, with the Amricans very heavily involved), although some progress had been made on the British front, they were held in check by the strength of the German forces among other factors.

    The Americans made slow progress towards St Lo, but several factors need to be considered. First, until Cherbour was taken St Lo was not the priority. Second, the bocage faced by the Americans was denser and much more widespread than that faced by the British. Third, they might not have faced the bulk of the Panzers, but the German paratroopers were concentrated there, probably the best light infantry they had and in positions which were easy to defend.

    Overall - and this was to continue to the end - the Germans were probably better improvisers, who used their initiative much more and undoubtedly had the best NCOs. They consistently made do with resources which would have left both the British and Americans "grounded". However, this tells us nothing about the fighting qualities of individual soldiers. British infantry training and tactics were probably not great and too many British infantry battalions had little to offer except "two up, one back" linear attacking formations, with too little sophistication of fire and movement, but again this tells us nothing about the individual.

    In this respect, I read Sapper's post as comments on the individual performance of the soldiers he saw, rather than a discussion of tactics and strategy, or the quality of the training for that matter.

    I see no evidence, for instance, that the British were always ready to surrender and the British tenacity in defence was recognised by all, particularly the Germans. A late friend of mine, a senior NCO wounded and captured at Arnhem, remarked about how Americna prisoners seemed to give up in captivity, neglecting things like hygene and normal military discipline.

    The truth is, you will find suerior and inferior in all the armies in NW Europe if you are determined to look for these qualities, but if you think that war really is an all arms and allied affair, then you have to ask one big question. If the British (and the Americans) were so much worse than the Germans, why did they win?
     

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