Thursday, September 15, 2016

The forgotten man who saved the world

First posted 15 September 2015

If the Battle of Britain saved the West, then we should remember the one man, above all others, who won that battle.   Air Chief Marshall Hugh (Lord) Dowding did not win it by himself; he did not shoot down a single plane.  Looking back, however, it seems almost certain that the battle (and perhaps the war) could not have been won without him.

His story is especially poignant because his achievements played out against a background of repeated professional disappointments.  Before the war he was passed over for promotion and slated for retirement.  Then, at the moment of his triumph, he was relieved of command.  Decades would pass before the public came to understand how much they owed the quiet man who inflicted the first strategic defeat on Hitler’s war machine.

Dowding stands out from the other senior commanders of the war because his prewar contributions were as important as his wartime work.  As the senior RAF officer for research and development he pushed for the creation of modern fighters and radar.  These were the crucial tools of the Battle of Britain.  Without Dowding’s efforts, it is almost certain that England would have faced the Luftwaffe with fighters of inferior quality than the Hurricane and Spitfires that took to the skies in 1940.

In 1936, Dowding became the first commander of Fighter Command.  He immediately set to work building a force capable of defending England against threats from the air.  His work here may have been his greatest contribution to the Western victory.  Under his leadership, Fighter Command developed the first thoroughgoing doctrine of air defense.  He also built the revolutionary system of radar, observation posts, and command centers tied together with protected communications that allowed Fighter Command to apply their meager resources for maximum effect.

As Churchill wrote:

All the ascendency of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centers and telephone cables which had been devised and built before the war by the Air Ministry under Dowding’s advice and impulse.

Half a century later historian Williamson Murray was even more effusive in his praise of Dowding’s achievement.  The development of Fighter Command doctrine, he declared, was ‘the only clear-cut case of revolutionary innovation in the twentieth century.’  Dowding ‘built an effective air defense system that altered the entire context within which air forces operated.’

The system was not merely an example of technical innovation.  Instead, it offset technical deficiencies with a quantum leap forward in the theory of air warfare.

While Germans may have possessed better equipment and even tactics, the British operated in a broader framework of contextual change.  By doing so they created a new logic within which the Luftwaffe was incapable of winning.

Dowding’s work is all the more impressive because it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of professional soldiers and pundits alike.  In the 1930s nearly everyone believed that ‘the bomber will always get through’.
In 1940, British planners estimated that 600,000 people would die in the first two months of a Luftwaffe civilian bombing campaign. ‘We thought of air warfare in 1938,’ recalled Harold Macmillan  ‘rather as people think of nuclear warfare today.’  Beyond the physical destruction, officials worried that strategic bombing would tear apart the social fabric.  Panic, peace strikes or revolution all seemed possible consequences of a sustained bombing campaign.

The only strategic options were appeasement/surrender or deterrence through a countervailing bomber force.  Dowding was the only senior commander willing and able to think through the ‘bomber problem’ in sufficient depth to understand the vulnerabilities of offensive air power and to formulate and develop effective counter-measures.

The evidence suggests that there was no other senior officer in the RAF with the requisite imagination and drive to carry through the contextual innovation that Dowding executed.
Williamson Murray

Britain survived for all the other glorious reasons, but mainly, and quite simply, because Dowding got it right.
Ronald Lewin
Of all the men who commanded the great victories in the war, only Dowding was responsible for significant doctrinal  and technological innovation in the peace that preceded it.  Nimitz, for example, played no role in the development of amphibious doctrine or the design of fleet carriers.  The German generals who invented the tactics of blitzkrieg (like Rommel and Guderian) were fairly junior commanders in the victories of 1939-42.  Most of the men who created the Red Army’s doctrine for modern combined arms warfare died in Stalin’s prisons before the war started.

If Dowding had retired as scheduled in July 1939, his peacetime work would still earn him a place among the most important military leaders of the twentieth century.  All the more remarkable, then, is the fact that his appointment to those posts represented severe professional disappointment.  The R&D section of the RAF was seen as a career dead-end.  This was confirmed in 1937 when he was passed over for the highest command in the RAF

Dowding, then, is a near perfect exemplar of the patriot and the professional soldier.  He did his best at all times because it was his duty.

Fortunately for Britain Dowding did not retire in 1939.  He was in charge of Fighter Command in the crucial weeks when the fate of the nation hung in the balance.  His conduct of that campaign marks him as both a great battlefield commander and a superlative strategist.

Britian could have lost the Battle of Britain before it even began.  As the blitzkrieg drove the Allies back in May 1940, the French insisted that the RAF send more fighter squadrons to the Continent.  Churchill initially supported this transfer.  Dowding refused to deplete his home forces.  He faced down Churchill at a meeting of the War Cabinet and kept the last of his Hurricanes and Spitfires at home.

His resolve hurt his standing with Churchill, but that was of little importance to the air commander.  As Kenneth Macksey noted, he ‘possessed that inner strength of conscience … that enabled him to stand firm in his resolve even at the risk of forfeiture of office.’  What mattered most to Dowding was that Fighter Command preserve its strength for the decisive battle to come.

Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the  tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one's own conscience

If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light that leads to truth; and second, the courage  to follow the faint light wherever it  may lead.  The first of these qualities is described by the French term coup d'oeil; the second is determination.
Clausewitz, On War
The whole war may have turned on Dowding’s refusal to send fighters to France.  As Churchill later wrote of the Battle of Britain:

The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.
The challenge before Dowding was even greater than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of 1940.  The home defense systems were designed to stop German bombers operating from German airfields.  It was assumed that there would be no fighter escorts because no fighter had the range to cover the distances involved.  The French surrender now gave the Luftwaffe bases which put fighters within range of southern England.  Fighter command would be tested in ways no one had foreseen.

Dowding’s conduct of the battle was a masterful orchestration of limited resources.  His strategy was essentially Fabian.  He understood that like Adm. Jellico in the Great War, he was ‘the only man who could lose the war in a day.’  Using radar and Fighter Command’s control centers, the RAF denied the Germans the air superiority they needed for Operation Sea Lion.  Try as it might, the Luftwaffe could not destroy Britian’s last defenders.

The foresight of Air Marshall Dowding in his direction of Fighter Command deserves high praise, but even more remarkable had been the restraint and the exact measurement of formidable stresses which had reserved a fighter force in the North through all these long weeks of mortal conflicts in the South.  We must regard the generalship shown here as an example of genius in the art of war
Churchill, Their Finest Hour

But in the many authoritative analyses of the Battle of Britain now available one salient feature emerges: in this, perhaps the most critical conflict fought in the war, the margin was indeed narrow.  It was a battle fought on a razor's edge.  Many well-recognized factors contributed to the ultimate success-- the pilots' devotion, the quality of British radar, Goring's errors.  But it was in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command-- Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding-- that those delicate, difficult, day-to-day judgments were made which, in the end, drew the fine decisive line between victory and defeat.  Often they were judgments as urgent and taxing as any commander has had to take.
Ronald Lewin  Ultra Goes to War

On 15 September 1940 Goering and Hitler launched their largest raids of the campaign. The Luftwaffe chief expected this to be the decisive battle that finished Fighter Command once and for all.  To his surprise and chagrin, Dowding still had sufficient forces left to inflict disproportionate loses on German bomber formations.  The Luftwaffe still did not hold air superiority over the English Channel.

British intelligence soon picked up indications that Hitler had ordered the indefinite delay of the planned invasion of Britan.  The most dangerous period of the war was over and the RAF had won.

And then, abruptly, Dowding was gone. Dismissed. As Arthur Harris of Bomber Command put it: Dowding became ‘the only commander who won one of the decisive battles of history and got sacked for his pains.’

Dowding’s problem was that his victory was clear-cut  only in retrospect.  The Battle of Britain had elided into the Blitz. Bombers were now getting through and bombing cities nearly every night.  Only a few men at the highest levels knew that this meant that the worst danger had passed.  Others believed that the failure to stop the bombing meant that Dowding and Fighter Command were not doing their job.  Eventually, the latter camp was able to force Dowding out.

The anti-Dowding camp were not gracious winners. When the Air Ministry published a pamphlet history of the Battle of Britain in March 1941, they omitted his name altogether.

Later historians have rectified that grievous error.  Now we can see that he was the indispensible man at a key pivot point in history.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Counter-Terrorism in France

Sobering report here:

Merah: The ‘Untold Story’ of a French Jihadist Icon

The undisputed icon and role model for this new generation of French jihadists is Mohamed Merah. In March 2012, the 23-year-old went on a killing spree in and around his native Toulouse, assassinating three French paratroopers in two separate incidents before pulling up in front of a Jewish school on his signature T-Max motorbike and executing three small children and a teacher at point-blank range. He died in a shootout with police three days later, following a 32-hour siege of his apartment.
It seems that French law enforcement and counter-terrorism may have some problems.

Jordanov’s research provides a unique window onto Merah’s life and crimes, offering important insight into his motives and the unflinching brutality of the ideology to which he subscribed. But it also reveals mind-boggling failings on the part of French counterterrorism. The story of Mohamed Merah is, in effect, that of a train wreck waiting to happen or, to paraphrase his brother Abdelghani, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode—while French intelligence looked on.

Indeed, in conversation with negotiators during the siege of his apartment, Merah himself expressed amazement at the fact that he was able to carry out his attacks unhindered, attributing his success—and the failure of French authorities—to the will of Allah. To coax Merah out of the building, the police had called in none other than Hassan Loubane, the local DCRI officer in charge of Merah’s file. Alluding to his own carelessness in having sent e-mails to his family during a 2011 trip to an al-Qaeda stronghold in Pakistan’s notorious tribal regions, Merah chided Loubane and his colleagues for their failure to react. “Hamdulillah!”—praise God—Merah exclaimed, “Allah made you blind!” Jordanov confirms that French intelligence officials, thanks to their American colleagues at the National Security Agency, were aware of at least some of these e-mails.


The blindness of French security services continued even after Merah had begun his killing spree, indeed even after he had been identified as a suspect and located. Jordanov describes Merah casually slipping out of his apartment on the evening of March 20th—this despite a hundred French police and intelligence officers already staking out the premises, who somehow failed to see him go. It is only thanks to the fact that Merah came back a few hours later—on his own account, to retrieve materials that he needed for another planned attack—that a French SWAT team did not end up raiding an empty apartment. His return, incidentally, also appears to have gone unperceived.

Merah told Loubane, his intelligence contact, that a minivan full of French gendarmes drove right past him as he was in the process of committing his first murder: the execution of French paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten in a deserted parking lot on March 11, 2012. (The gendarmerie is a national police force.) Merah said that the driver of the van looked him “straight in the eyes.” “Your gendarmes don’t even intervene,” Merah mockingly told Loubane, “They could have arrested me and look [what happened]!”

Monday, September 12, 2016

Siege of Vienna

First posted 12 September 2003

In the summer of 1683 the Ottoman Turks advanced up the Danube, occupied Hungary, and, in July, laid siege to Vienna. They had 200,00 men and over 300 cannon. The defenders of the city numbered less than 22,000 only 6,000 of whom were regular soldiers; the remainder were civilians pressed into service at the start of the siege.

The relief of the city was complicated by European politics. Louis XIV of France hoped to gain German territory on the Rhine while the Hapsburgs were occupied in the east. To that end, he worked to create am anti-Hapsburg alliance with Hungary and Poland which would deny Austria aid against the Turks. (Incidentally, the Ottoman artillery were commanded by a Frenchman, a former Capuchin no less).

By September, conditions were desperate inside the city- low supplies, disease, and weakening defenses. The Hapsburgs had raised a relief army of only 21,000. But, fortunately, Poland had spurned Louis's maneuvers and sent an army of 24,000 under their King John Sobieski.

On September 12, the two relief armies and the forces inside the city attacked the besiegers. The critical moment came in mid-afternoon when Sobieski sent his cavalry into the heart of the Ottoman camp. The battle became a rout. The next day the Polish king wrote his wife: "the Vizer took such hurried flight that he had time to escape with only one horse."

He also noted the Turks "left behind a mass of innocent Austrian people, particularly women; but they butchered as many as they could." Separate from that slaughter, the Ottomans had sent 67,000 Austrians east as slaves and 14,000 girls to the harems of Constantinople.

Sobieski's troops captured the Ottoman battle flag ("The green standard of the Prophet") in the fighting. This he sent to the Pope with the message "Veni, Vidi, Deus Vicit" ("I came, I saw, God conquered").

The lifting of the siege is usually marked as the turning point for the Ottoman empire. For centuries they had advanced against Europe, conquering the Byzantium empire, capturing lands in the Balkans and islands in the Mediterranean. After 1683 they began 250 years of retreat. (Funny how many of these critical turning points find the Poles fighting on the right side).

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Poland: First to Fight

Originally posted 1 September 2010

The popular image of Poland in WWII is of a small nation that became the first victim of the Nazi blitzkrieg and the proximate cause of the war when Great Britain and France rallied to its side.

History records a different story. Poland fought Hitler’s Reich longer than any other nation. Her contributions to the Allied victory were significant and should be reclaimed from the memory hole.

First, about the defeat in September 1939:
The Polish Army-- almost completely unmechanized, almost without air support, almost surrounded by the Germans from the outset and, shortly, completely surrounded when the Red Army joined the aggression-- fought more effectively than it has been given credit for. It sustained resistance from September 1 until October 5, five weeks, which compares highly favorably with the six and a half weeks during which France, Britain, Belgium, and Holland kept up the fight in the west the following year
(John Keegan, The Battle for History)

Despite the defeats of 1939, the Polish nation never stopped fighting. Not only did the Home Army resist the Nazis inside of occupied Poland, but Polish forces fought on every major front of the European war.

The existence of a legitimate government in exile and of a strong army abroad--Poland, even in 1944, had the fourth largest number of men fighting German after the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom-- lent a powerful heart to the Poles, who produced few collaborators and no puppet chief, a unique distinction in the record of European response to German aggression.

Polish airmen filled whole squadrons in the Battle of Britain at a time when Britain barely had enough fighter pilots to hold off the Luftwaffe. (The Kosciuszko Squadron shot down more German planes than any other fighter squadron during the battle). Ground units fought heroically in key battles in Italy and France.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Poland made to the final victory was in the realm of intelligence. They played a vital role in breaking the Enigma cipher system used by the German high command and shared their discoveries with the French and British.

The Poles eventually designed a whole array of mechanical aids -- some of which they passes to the British, some of which the British replicated independently, besides inventing others themselves-- but their original attack, which allowed them to understand the logic of Enigma, eas a workd of pure mathematical reasoning. As it was done without any modern computing machinery, but simply by pencil and paper, it must be regarded as one of the most remarkable mathematical exercises known to history.
(John Keegan, Intelligence in War)

In the first desperate years of the war, Engima/ULTRA intelligence enabled Britain to hold off the Luftwaffe and then the U-boat menace.

The Nazis never discovered the ULTRA secret in five years of war. That is an amazing testament to the Poles and the French still on the Continent who knew the secret but never divulged it, not even under Gestopo torture.

The Polish Underground was the number one source of HUMINT in occupied Europe for the British. They provided vast amounts on information on the German V-1 and V-2 secret weapons, the movements of U-boats, and the German military preparations in advance of D-Day.

Witold Pilecki is a name every student should know. He carried out what the Times of London called “perhaps the bravest act of espionage of the Second World War”: he volunteered to go inside of Auschwitz. His reports documented the Nazi’s extermination campaign against the Jews.