Daily Archives: 8 August, 2010

The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap?

In reading about the possible land battles that might have ensued in a Third World War in Europe, I’ve found an interesting parallel with the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 and the Manstein Plan of 1940.

General Sir John Hackett, in his book The Third World War, predicted that the main Warsaw Pact thrust would come through the North German Plain. A strong Soviet thrust from northern East Germany would have fell upon NATO’s Northern Army Group, cut off Denmark and effectively sealed the Baltic. There were also fewer natural obstacles in the area, and an advance in the north would have allowed the Warsaw Pact to avoid more difficult terrain in the south and also outflank US forces in central and southern Germany. NATO forces would have been hamstrung by a need to defend as much German territory as possible, but would almost inevitably have had to fall back to soak up the Soviet advance. A strong advance along the North Sea Coast might have cut occupied Holland and possibly threatened channel ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. This would in turn have threatened NATO lines of communications, especially for Britain.

An attack along the North German Plain to outflank NATO forces in Europe would have been very similar to both the Schlieffen Plan in terms of a northern advance through easier territory, but also the Manstein Plan in terms of outflanking a Maginot line like obstacle. It also shows a more British-like thinking, with a policy of attacking the point of least resistance. Remember also that in September 1944 Montgomery wanted to attack the North German Plain, only in the opposite direction.

US strategists, on the other hand, seem to have focussed on the Fulda Gap, a low-lying and open plain between the East German border and Frankfurt. A thrust through the Fulda Gap would have been in the centre of the front-line of Cold War Europe. An attack near Fulda would have met the bulk of the US Army in Germany head on, and given that the US provided most of the forces in the theatre a defeat there would have been catastrophic to the rest of NATO. A Fulda Gap operation would have been more in line with US military thinking, namely a strong frontal attack against the bulk of the enemy’s forces.

Both options, however, would have been hampered by pressing concerns on the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Given the numerical weakness of the NATO armies, it was assumed that the US would use nuclear weapons on targets in Poland and East Germany to disrupt reinforcements reaching the front-line. Therefore the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces would need to reach as far as possible as quickly as possible before this might happen. Some Soviet exercises, such as Seven Days to the Rhine, assumed that the Rhine would be the limit of the advance before the communist forces were forced to halt.

Its an interesting dilemma indeed. Thinking as a Soviet General in the 1980′s, I must admit the North German Plain looks inviting. Less natural obstacles, weaker opposition, the possibility of cutting off Denmark and the Baltic and reaching the North Sea and Channel Coast quicker, isolating the British Army of the Rhine and outflanking the bulk of US in Europe would have been pretty appealing. But then maybe thats too predictable? On the other hand, it does seem that NATO thinking – always led by an American, remember – saw the Fulda Gap as the most likely route, followed by the North German plain.

I’m sure its a scenario that war game enthusiasts have played out many a time…

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – return to the Somme

The beginning of October 1916 found the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment billeted at Cobie, a town some 20 miles behind the Somme front-line. The men were under no illusions as to what they were preparing for, as they had been informed sometime previously that they would be going back into action. After the failure to make a breakthrough on the first day, Field Marshal Haig kept pressing his Generals to keep attacking on the Somme, and the battle was still raging there over 4 months later.

Tellingly, the 1st of October found the Battalion practising attacking an entrenched position. The next day found them practising consolidation – that is, the tactic of holding onto positions that had been captured. After being confined to billets for several days due to wet weather, on 5th October the whole 11th Brigade, in conjunction with the 10th Brigade, practised assaulting a village.

On 7th October the Battalion marched eight miles nearer the front line, to Meaulte. The roads were crowded with troops, all moving in preparation for the next phase of the Somme offensive. The Battalion were billeted in 20 man tents. The next day the Battalion marched even nearer to the line, on flooded country tracks. When they arrived at Montaubaun the tents earmarked for them had already been occupied, so the men had to devise makeshift shelters, which they slept in until their tents became free on the 12th.

While the officers went forward to familiarise themselves with the front-line, the Battalion also continuted practising assaulting trenches. On the 17th of October 1916 the Hampshires were in Brigade reserve, while the other 3 Battalions were in the front line east of Guillemont. (The 14th and 15th Battalions of the Regiment – the Portsmouth ‘pals’ Battalions – had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Guillemont during September). The next day the 1st Rifle Brigade and the 1st East Lancashires attacked the German front line. There was not much success, due to the very wet conditions. The Hampshire supplied carrying parties for the Brigade Headquarters and the front-line Battalions.

The next day the Brigade retired to support lines near Lesboeufs. On the 22nd the Battalion relieved the 1st Somerset Light Infantry in the front line, midway between Morval and Lesboeufs. The next day, the 23rd, dawned very misty. Zero hour for the coming operation – the Battle of le Transloy – was put back from 11.30am until 2.30pm in order to allow the ground to dry. The Hampshires were in the front-line, and were next to the French Army on their right. Their objective was an ‘imaginary line’ on the map, known as ‘the brown line’. The British Guns were falling short of the German lines most of the morning, leaving them relatively unscathed.

At 2.30pm the Battalion went over the top. C Company were on the right, A Company on the left, D Company in support and B Company in reserve. As soon as they entered no mans land very heavy Machine Gun and Rifle fire was directed at the Hampshires. The right flank suffered very heavy casualties, but managed to enter the first line of German trenches. They had to retire, however, due to a shortage of ammunition. Eventually the whole line had to retire to their original positions.

The next day the Battalion counted the cost – 10 officers and 192 other ranks. After being relieved the Battalion marched back to bivouac in Trones Wood. By the end of the month the Battalion was billeted at Abbeville. After such serious losses on the first day of the Somme, during the Gas attack in the Ypres Salient and on the 23rd of October, the 1st Hampshires were by now seriously understrength.

The battle on 23 October 1916 caused more casualties to Portsmouth men than the first day of the battle on 1 July. The men from Portsmouth who were killed on 23 October were: Private William Bampton (27, Stone Street, Southsea), Private Cyril Baker, Lance Corporal Albert Boyle (28, Peckham Street, Southsea), Private James Kneller (Oxford Street, Landport), Private Harry Carter, Private Douglas James, and Private Joseph Green. All have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. Private Frederick Hatch (40) died two days later – presumably of wounds – and is buried at Guards Leboeuf Cemetery.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One