The Problems of the encounter battle etc RE Journal and subsequent discussion in Army Quarterly

Discussion in 'General' started by Sheldrake, Jul 18, 2021.

  1. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    I am interested in getting hold of a copy of the article Bernard Montgomery wrote for the RE Journal September 1937 on The Problems of the encounter battle as affected by Modern British War Establishments, the critique of his argument and his response in Army Quarterly 1938.

    Two aspects of this subject interest me. Montgomery seems to have adopted some of the ideas expressed in his article as part of the philosophy hae passed on. These include the idea that the commander has to know how to win the battle before the start - a great Monty-ism. The second is the concept of the encounter battle itself in British doctrine. There were pamphlets on Infantry and armour in attack, defence or advance, but the concept of the meeting engagement per ce is not one that seems to have engaged much thought.
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  2. idler

    idler GeneralList

    I'd have thought that the encounter battle would be within the scope of the 'in the advance' pamphlets. Do you know whether that is or isn't the case?
  3. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron


    Have you tried the back numbers of the RE Journal which appear on the New Zealand Corps of Engineers website, or similar. See: Royal Engineers - Useful Links

    Perhaps their collection might include the 1937 editions, although the cited list starts in 1939.
  4. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    You have given me an idea.... Even though I am a Gunner I do know a few Engineers who owe me a favour...
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  5. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    In principle yes, and then no.

    Military Training Pamplet No 23 Part X The infantry Division in the Advance is specifically directed towards an advance that starts out of contact and likely to end in contact

    However, there is very little about the transition from the advance to fighting the battle apart from the paragraph on p24 at the end of the section on Action on Meeting opposition.

    "A time may come when the advance of columns is held up on the whole front . Higher commanders must assumer control and centralise as they see this time approaching."

    Monty may have had a point in thinking there was a case for looking at the transition from an advance to fighting an offensive or defensive battle.

    I spent ten years in the army and frequently took part in field exercises and TEWTs and the occasional wargame when the setting was "The advance." Invariable an advance was towards scattered enemy forces to be eliminated by Company or Battlegroup attacks. I cannot recall taking part in any scheme or reading of post WW2 exercises when the result of an advance was to meet an enemy of similar or greater force seeking to advance in the opposite direction.
  6. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Sheldrake,

    The lack of written doctrine - or vagueness - on the encounter battle specifically perhaps is not evidence that the matter had not been thought out thoroughly but that a 'higher doctrine' was in play: the doctrine of the divisional commander (and higher where appropriate) on the spot being the font of all tactical knowledge and ability.

    Does the quote you provide above not point in that very direction?

    To me, the title of the article you seek suggests recogognition of the encounter battle exists and understanding of how to deal with it is in place and that the author wishes to critique whether that existing understanding will be able to be maintained with the (then) new divisional organization coming into force. In otherwords, he is seeking not to start the first discussion on the encounter battle per se but to encourage a discussion of how it needs to be modified in light of new orbats. Montgomery had previously written the doctrine on infantry, he is now proposing it needs to be revised in light of changing circumstance.
  7. idler

    idler GeneralList

    It's far from an exhaustive survey but FSR II 1920 (Provisional) includes a short section on the approach to battle and some 'special considerations' for the encounter battle. (The latter are on an untrimmed pair of pages so I will need to split them.)

    Jumping to FSR II 1935, equivalent sections don't appear in the contents - there's no obvious transition from protection to attack.

    Two or three 'armoured regiment' pamphlets published in the first half of the war. On the basis that the great thinkers of the RTC/RAC sidestepped deliberate attacks, encounter battles ought to have been their bread and butter. It might be worth looking at what they had to say on the matter.
  8. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello idler,

    See FSR II (1935) Ch.V, Section 43.

    In brief, the doctrine is that the force commander makes up his mind what to do. It is in perfect harmony with what Sheldrake quoted earlier. :D
  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Cheers. Hopefully it will be cooler tomorrow and the brain will work better!
  10. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    ATI No.3, Handling of an Armoured Division, (May 1941) has a section which covers this eventuality.

    But it's all generic, common sense stuff like: use terrain to your advantage, adopt hull down firing positions, make sure your attack has depth, etc etc.

    There is no earth shattering insights into how (unexpected) encounter battles against an enemy also in the advance should be played out differently to if you (unexpectedly) encounter an enemy not in the advance but half asleep.
  11. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    :D :D :D
  12. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Montgomery's biographer Hamilton argues that Montgomery's interest in the Encounter battle stemmed from his anger at the the way his unit had been flung into batle in 1914 with only vague ideas to 'attack the enemy|.

    Ferdinand Foch before 1914 made a study of the encounter battle as he thought that modern weapons favoured the combatant who made best used on the inital encounters. Arguably the British recognised that the early battles on the Somme and in Flanders left the Germans with ground of tactical importance that overlooked British positions. However, there does not seem to have been any systematic look at how to fight the early encounters to gain later advantage. Its all commanders judgement along the linse of the "tactics is just applied common sense." British school of doctrone. The Soviets had the meeting engagement as the cornerstone of their tactical drills - while we had the section/platoon/company squadron group /battlegroup attack as ours.

    This whole area reminds me of the remark by Richard Simpkin gthat the British and American armies move between fights whereas tne German and Russians fight between moves. I know what he meant. For years we studies the Soviets Meeting engagement and a single exercise with the Bundeswehr showed me that German maps, when marked by panzer troops had arrows not goose-eggs - even in defence. Look too at the situation maps in the Lage West series - Divisions had sectors not positions.

    Was that a cultural distinction or did it have a foundation in doctrine?
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2021
    Chris C likes this.
  13. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Sheldrake,

    I think there is more to it than just "culture" per se, but that having been said, I would argue that is where this comes from.

    In my opinion, doctrine is not the start point of the discussion but the product of what the Army's 'brains trust' believes in.

    I have never made any attempt to study and analyse the encounter battle in its own right as you are now doing. Nevertheless, sub-consciously I have absorbed quite a bit whilst reading around the subject and I now believe that the (lack of) consideration of - perhaps even determination to avoid - the encounter battle and the poor results in the early 'fluid' battles of the desert and elsewhere are inextricably linked. In our previous exchanges I have commented about how I believe Montgomery's Alamein was significantly helped by it being a battle the British commanders were culturally, intellectually, and professionally more comfortable with. The absence, and avoidance, of the encounter battle being a key standout.

    British inter-war planning for a continental conflagration was build around the acceptance that they would be (very) junior partners in alliance with the French. The French assumed in the mid-30s that the next war would be played out in 4 stages. The first stage being the initial concentration then march forward of two masses to contact and the ensuing skirmish. If neither side achieves a decisive result in this 2-3 week confrontation, stage 2 kicks in which is a period of stabilizing a defined front line leading to stage 3 of static warfare. The British bought into this - see Montgomery-Massingbird's Future Organization of the British Army circa 1935.

    This understanding appears to propose a huge encounter battle in stage 1. Win that and achieve a decisive victory and avoid stages 2 to 4, or avoid losing it and jockey for the best position during stage 2. It is a perfect opportunity to employ the thinking of Foch that you mention above.

    But what happened in reality? The actual French war plans were written so as to avoid the encounter battle completely: advance to a preselected line, dig in and wait for the Germans to come on. The arguments September-November 1939 regarding the Dyle v Escaut Line were all premised upon avoiding that encounter battle.

    Neither the French nor the British had any appetite for the encounter battle and in the case of the British never really got to grips with it.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2021
  14. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello idler,

    I had a nagging in the back of my mind that I had read a fairly comprehensive write up of the encouter battle - albeit not named as such in FSR II (1920). Now taken a few moments out to look for it and presto! Thank you.

    Chapter IX, Sections 109-111 The Advance to the Battlefield

    This is then followed by Chapter X with particular note on Section 113 titled The Encounter Attack. Special considerations. Where 'encounter' is defined as being against "unorganized resistance" when compared to the organized resistance of the "Deliberate Attack".

    Taken relative to what's around it, I think this is quite substantial.

    How this all disappears by the 1935 edition is interesting. Can it be co-incidental that this disappearance is parallel to actual plans to avoid its very occurence?
  15. idler

    idler GeneralList

    That rather misses the point that an encounter battle is not always something you choose to fight. An army ought to have something in place to counter an encounter battle that's forced upon them.

    Does 1935's protection chapter hint at a hasty defence when van, flank or rearguards encounter something large?

    Or did we simply assume that our world-leading armoured forces would be the ones forcing encounter battles on their terms? An arm - not army - doctrine?
  16. JohnB

    JohnB Junior Member

    The FSR Volume III 1935 has a chapter (Chapter III The Preliminaries to Battle) that might be ticket?
    Divided into sections
    9. Strategical reconnaissance
    10. The opening moves
    11. Manoeuvre and stratagem
    12. The plan of battle
    13. First contact and deployment for battle
  17. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Chapters V and VI tell us about the Offensive Battle and the Defensive Battle respectively.

    Arguably, they cover the Encounter Battle but as a fusion of both the encounter and the deliberate efforts of FSR II (1920). In a charitable way, the most generous comment takes us back to the 'higher doctrine' that the divisional and higher commander is thus to defuse as appropriate and decide what to do.

    However, the specific encounter that Sheldrake is pondering does nor really get covered at all for there is nothing to help the reader to understand what to do if the enemy is actually in the process of an offensive action himself. It's a fusion of marching to an enemy set for the defence whether you bump him unexpectedly or expectedly.
  18. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Well, if pre-war plans had played out as expected, they would not be forced to do anything.

    You may have spotted the flaw in that reasoning and wondered whether it may have something to do with results in the first half of the war. ;)

    Don't recall it off the top of my head.

    Yes and no.

    There was certainly an underlying (over)confidence in their own capabilities and success. In all respects including armoured forces.

    But even the armoured forces doctrine is weak and vague on the matter. But then again, stage 4 of the French (and British) pre-war planning assumptions is vague to the point of non-existence on how they were going to break the stage 3 static warfare and gain victory. Arguably, the most informative is reading betwen the lines of FSR II & III (1935) that after one humungous effort to break the enemy frontline, the enemy will be in full retreat and the 'pursuit' battle takes place. Thus again, no need for an encounter battle because you broke him in the break through.
  19. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Going back a few posts, the cultural difference seems to have fairly obvious roots...

    If you're an aggressive, attacking sort of chap, would you rather deal with a dug- and wired-in enemy or one bimbling around in the open (given acceptable force ratios)? Did the Germans and Soviets consider that an encounter battle on their terms promised a relatively cheap victory?

    Conversely, did the Anglo-French teams think that with the aggressor holding the initiative, an encounter battle might be a risky gamble compared to going firm? Assuming they thought about it at all.

    Were there any editions of FSR between 1920 and 1935 that might add to the tale?

    I'm also wondering if the 1950s pamphlets on the infantry and armoured divisions In Battle expand on the encounter battle as a lesson learned?
  20. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    I've got a nagging feeling that a young Guy Simonds wrote on this subject in a Canadian military journal between the wars - can't for the life of me remember if that was in response to the discussion in British military circles and all books buried in garage at the moment. I think John English discusses this though.



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