Monday, September 18, 2017

Coalition strategy and strategic fantasies

The first requirement for a student of Allied grand strategy in World War Two is a high tolerance for boredom. Anglo-American strategy was not the stuff of Napoleonic genius translated into instant military action. Instead, strategic decision-making was a matter of memoranda. Memos setting out each partner’s proposed strategy. Memos responding to those memos. Memos preparing for conferences. Memos memorializing the decisions reached at those conferences.

It makes for dry and often tedious reading. Yet this memo-laden process (Eisenhower called it a “trans-Atlantic essay contest”) was vital to forging the war-winning strategy of the Allies.

The contrast with the Axis is stark. Despite all the bumps along the way, the allies were making joint strategy: all the memo-writing led to decisions that bound both the US and Great Britain. The Axis resolutely refused to do anything like this.

This article illustrates just how disconnected the Axis powers were as they fought a global coalition.

The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes, 1937-1942

The Japanese advances in the Southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore produced a sort of ‘cascade effect’ also on the Axis naval position: Rome (and Berlin) at least perceived this. The Italian Navy was increasingly confident that now the Tripartite could launch a global assault on the enemy sea-lanes. The Japanese guarantees fueled Italian expectations that establishing a naval contact with the Axis via the Indian Ocean was a priority. In April 1942, the raid of the Japanese Fleet against Ceylon seemed to anticipate further projection in the area, while the Japanese dismissed the British occupation of the naval base of Diego Suarez in Madagascar in May 1942 as unimportant. The Italians envisaged the possibility to send the largest number of their submarines in the Indian Ocean to attack enemy shipping that was resupplying British forces in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected.

At this point, practical cooperation would have needed a political instrument to work. The only suitable seats were the Military Commissions. However, in March 1942, the three powers agreed that ‘[T]he commissions’ activity must […] act only at the margins of the political and military conduct of the war’. Even the exchange of information and intelligence not worked. Supermarina had to follow the official bulletin of the Imperial General Headquarters to obtain details of Japanese naval losses: this explains why the Japanese defeat at Midway never appears in the Italian reports.

During summer 1942, the stalemate at El-Alamein and the possibility that British 8th Army might mount a counteroffensive made it urgent for the Axis to attack the enemy supply lines. At the end of August, Abe personally assured Mussolini that submarines were intensifying operations in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, between August and November, the Submarine Squadron 8 was dispatched in the Western Indian Ocean, sinking 60,000 tonnes of ships. The Italians and the Germans proposed again to send their submarines to cooperate with the Japanese, asking for the necessary logistical support. Tokyo refused, arguing that Japanese units had to operate alone to avoid incidents with the Axis units.

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