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British Offensive Operations

Recommended Reading


The Devil's Birthday: The Bridges to Arnhem 1944


A Bridge Too Far: The Classic History of the Greatest Battle of World War II
 

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Strategic Consumption and British Offensive Operations in Northwest Europe
Strategic Consumption and British Offensive Operations in Northwest Europe: August - September 1944
by Thomas Leckwold

The Western Allies launched Operation Market-Garden on September 17, 1944 under the overall command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his Twenty First Army Group with the intended goal of ending the war in 1944. The decision to launch Operation Market-Garden, like most military operations, had a causal relationship to the events that had created the current military situation. The decision, the operation’s execution, and its ultimate failure are directly attributable to the now stalled British offensive operations that were conducted in northwest Europe in late August and early September 1944. The decision to launch Operation Market-Garden was an attempt to restart the British Army offensive that had slowed and dissipated in strength because of the effects of strategic consumption.

Strategic consumption is defined as when an offensive progresses it will steadily lose strength until it reaches a point of culmination from which it cannot continue unless it is reinforced.[1] Antulio Echevarria II credits this definition as having its roots in Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of the “culminating point of the attack.”[2] Clausewitz theory states that an attack will gradually exhaust itself, and that the advance must continue until the objectives are reached or the army’s offensive superiority exhausts itself which is the offensive’s culminating point.[3] This culmination point is where the British Army in northwest Europe found itself in September 1944.

The Western Allies, including the British Twenty First Army Group, had been conducting offensive operations since the start of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. The British and the American offensive operations started their rapid advance through France after the breakout from the Normandy beachhead that was enabled by the successful execution of Operation Cobra on July 25, 1944. It was the effects of this rapid advance that created the conditions of strategic consumption for the British Army in northwestern Europe.

The British breakout from Normandy did not start in headlong pursuit as experienced by the U.S. Twelfth Army Group shortly after the execution of Operation Cobra. The Twelfth Army Group had taken over the offensive effort and the Twenty First Army Group was assigned the objective of tying down German forces and keeping them from shifting to defend against the American breakout and to standby to possibly push into the Falaise Plain and, as events unfolded, the closing of the Falaise Pocket. [4]

The British in support of their objective launched four operations in late July through late August in an attempt to tie down German forces and to advance steadily to keep pressure on the German defenders in Normandy. These four operations did not create any rapid or deep penetrations as the United States Army was experiencing, but they did keep pressure of various intensities on the German defenders which prevented the large scale shifting of German forces to counter the American breakout.

These operations provided experience to British commanders in improving coordination between its infantry and armor in offensive operations. It also highlighted the British deficiencies in training and command and control on the battlefield that led to the British unable to act or react to the tactical and operational situation as rapidly as the Germans.[5] The experience the British gained in these offensive and their deficiencies when compared to the Germans were both present during Operation Market-Garden.

The final of the four offensives, Operation Totalise, which concluded on August 22nd, allowed for the rapid advance of the Twenty First Army Group as it broke out from Normandy. The German defenders were shattered by their static defense of Normandy and their disastrous failure during the Mortain counter offensive. They were unable to mount a significant defensive resistance to the British advance and were in headlong retreat to re-establish a new defensive line. The British understood their offensive needed to maintain momentum to prevent the Wehrmacht from getting any respite that would allow it to reform a defensive line, and was part of the directive from Montgomery to the commander of the XXX Corps, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, that the British offensive needed to keep the pressure, through rapid advance, to prevent the Wehrmacht from recovering.[6]

The Twenty First Army Group breakout was led by the British Second Army and supported by the Canadian First Army. The Second Army would lead the advance through northern France and into Belgium. The Second Army was commanded by Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey and had three corps under his command with a total of eight full divisions and a varying and assorted number of independent brigades. The First Canadian Army was to advance along the French coast along the left flank of the British Second Army. The First Canadian Army was commanded by Lieutenant General Harry Crerar and consisted of two Canadian Corps and one British Corps with a total of five full Canadian divisions, one Polish division, and three British divisions along with a number of independent brigades.

The British offensive toward Belgium was launched from the Seine River and was led by Horrocks’ XXX Corps. The XXX Corps advanced on a fifty mile wide front against sporadic resistance that allowed it to advance up to fifty miles per day.[7] By September 2nd the XXX Corps had reached Belgium and by September 3rd had captured Brussels and this was followed by the capture of Antwerp and its intact port and facilities on September 4th.[8]

The day that the port of Antwerp was captured by the XXX Corps; General Dempsey, ordered a halt to the advance because the corps had outrun its administrative resources.[9] The Twenty First Army Group was relying on the British Second Army offensive to maintain the pressure on the Wehrmacht and the order to halt the XXX Corps meant that the Germans were to get a chance to recover. The British, in the end, were only able to maintain their offensive momentum from August 22nd to September 4th and brings into question about the British ability to sustain offensive operations and why they would suffer the effects of strategic consumption so quickly considering they had only sporadic German resistance contesting their offensive.

The four offensives before the Normandy breakout did create British casualties and, of course, casualties are factors in strategic consumption. The British were also suffering, by 1944, from manpower shortages, but the casualties incurred, or the manpower shortage had no direct impact to strategic consumption that stalled the British offensive in early September, so the British offensive needs to be evaluated based on the reasons other then manpower constraints as to why the British offensive was ordered to halt on September 4th. The first part to be evaluated would be the impact of the supply issues of the British Army, and then second are factors that limited and reduced British offensive strength during the advance. Their offensive strength was insufficient for the overall objectives and was exacerbated by the Allied supply constraints. Both of these factors had a primary role in British suffering from strategic consumption.

It is a well known fact that the Western Allies were suffering supply issues by September 1944, but the British failed to advance with the same momentum as the U.S. Army in either distance or duration. The British failure to maintain an advance is directly attributed to the inability to move supplies to its field armies. The Allied supplies on the continent were still originating from the Normandy beaches and this placed stress on both the U.S. and British logistics system. The long distance of the beaches to the front and the fact that the railway system in France was devastated by the Allied bombing efforts in preparation to the invasion meant that supplies had to be moved by trucks from the Normandy beaches to the U.S. and British armies in the field.

The reliance on trucks and the distance to the Normandy beaches to the field armies defined the Allied supply issue as a factor of distance and mode of transportation. The first issue with truck transportation is that the farther trucks traveled the more fuel they expended just to carry supplies, including fuel to the front that was needed to maintain the mobile formations of the Twenty First Army Group. These formations continued to see their fuel allocations decline as the truck based supply system required and expended more fuel to maintain the movement of supplies between Normandy and the combat front that was advancing toward Belgium.

The other factor of distance was that as the front moved farther from the Normandy supply depots it required trucks to spend more time on the road. This means that trucks were spending more time traveling and less time loading and off loading supplies and the effect was they were delivering fewer supplies per day as their distance to the front increased and therefore their travel time increased.

The increasing distance and time on the road meant that trucks were being fully utilized and were subject to mechanical failures because of lack of proper maintenance.[10] When a truck did breakdown it was often left on the road and not immediately repaired because there were not enough vehicles that could be committed to pick up broken down vehicles.[11] The issue of the maintenance was compounded by the fact that the British Army had 1,400 trucks that were delivered with defective engines and were of no use to the supply system.[12] The maintenance losses and the defective vehicles meant that the British Army’s logistic system had a significant deficiency in its ability to supply their field armies because fewer trucks meant that the delivery tonnage was diminishing.

The Allied advance was also two months ahead of SHAEF’s original plan, and this resulted in two months of fewer vehicles to be produced by Allied industry to be delivered to the combat zone to compensate for the damaged, defective, and broken down vehicles.[13] The fact that the Allied effort was two month ahead of schedule also meant that their was no time for supplies to be placed in depots closer to the front and fuel pipelines had not had time to be completed or extended.

The Allies being ahead of schedule had the additional consequence of making timeline for the First Canadian Army to capture Channel ports along the French coastline obsolete. The rapid advance by the British and Americans meant that the Canadians did not have the time to take the ports nor did they have the strength to significantly speed up the timetable to capture the ports that would have shortened the distance needed to travel to supply the field armies.

The supply issues were a primary reason why the British were suffering the effects of strategic consumption. The offensive was losing strength and needed to be reinforced to maintain momentum. It was losing strength because of supply issues and the short term measures the British had to take to maintain the supplies flowing to its field armies had a long term detrimental consequences in maintaining its offensive operations.

General Dempsey had to make a decision of how to maintain the breakout and pursuit of the German remnants retreating from France. The lack of trucks and the distance to the supplies at Normandy required the economization of his forces to maintain the momentum. The result of Dempsey’s decision was that he was able to maintain his forces pursuit in exchange of seriously compromising his offensive strength.

General Dempsey made the decision to that the main effort of the offensive would be carried by Horrocks’ XXX Corps. Dempsey was going to leave his VIII Corps on the Seine River and his XII Corps was to maintain contact with the slower coastline advance of the Canadian First Army. He realized that his army was in pursuit of a disorganized enemy, and British offensive was in pursuit mode, so organized resistance was going to be bypassed by advancing elements. This allowed Dempsey to make the additional decision to leave his medium and heavy artillery behind with the VIII Corps on the Seine River.[14]

The result of this decision is that the trucks that would move the heavy and medium artillery, the VIII Corps, and all the supplies required to maintain them in the field could be now used to supply the offensive that was now being executed exclusively by XXX Corps. This allowed the momentum to be maintained to prevent the German defenders from re-establishing a cohesive defensive front. The trade off was that much of the personnel and equipment that could be used to enhance the offensive strength of the British Second Army were left well behind the fighting front, and thus made it more susceptible to the effects of strategic consumption.

The rapid advance came to an end when Dempsey ordered a halt to the advance because the XXX Corps had outrun its administrative resources as fuel and supplies were not reaching the fighting front despite the additional trucks of the Second British Army being dedicated to the offensive.[15] Horrocks disagreed with this decision, but it was clearly evident that the British effort could not maintain momentum and lacked strength to secure the needed objectives.[16]

Two critical events indicated that the British offensive was suffering from strategic consumption. The first event was that the XXX Corps lacked the strength to exploit the capture of Antwerp. The 11th British Armour division was able to capture Antwerp and the port facilities, but did not clear the north side of the Scheldt Estuary. The capture of the port facilities was critical for relieving the Western Allies supply problems but the XXX Corps did not have the strength nor did it direct sufficient planning to capture the entire estuary. These oversights were caused either through ground commanders lacking the knowledge of the importance of controlling both sides of the estuary, or through the belief that they lacked the forces to even attempt a capture of both sides of the estuary to take advantage of the German defensive weakness. The end result was that the British were able to capture an important channel port, but was of no value until the entire estuary was captured.

The second critical event was that the British were not able to advance eleven miles north of Antwerp and reach the Beveland isthmus. The German commander of OB West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had ordered the German Fifteenth Army to evacuate its positions along the French coast, but since the Allies were rapidly advancing and had isolated a large part of the Fifteenth Army it was cut off from a land route to reach the main German lines. Rundstedt ordered it to evacuate by water across the Schelde to the island of Walcheren then to South Beveland peninsula.[17] The Fifteenth Army was to use the Beveland Isthmus to move into the Dutch mainland and help re-establish a defensive front in the West.

It is questionable whether the XXX Corps had the combat strength to advance, capture, and hold the isthmus and bottle up the retreating Germans. It also could not be reinforced by the rest of the Second Army because its units were largely immobilized along the Seine River with its transport being used to supply the XXX Corps. The British apparently lacked the ground intelligence to determine the German intent of redeploying of the Fifteenth Army into The Netherlands. Dempsey’s halt order of September 4th illustrated that the higher level Allied ground commanders were unaware of the importance of the Beveland Isthmus to the long term German defensive strategy in the West. The end result was that capturing of the Scheldt Estuary and the blocking of the Beveland Isthmus required the British to occupy territory but it lacked the ground units to accomplish these tasks.

The British offensive reached its culmination point on the Belgian-Dutch border on September 4, 1944. The reason for the British reaching their culmination point in just twelve days was due to its logistic limitations. They were forced to leave much of their offensive power behind to maintain the momentum of just one corps, so to economize their limited supply truck assets to supply the offensive and this made them vulnerable to the impact of strategic consumption. When that one corps reached the Dutch border it was faltering and it lacked the strength to occupy either the Scheldt Estuary or block the Beveland Isthmus. Both had the effect that the British offensive could no longer disrupt even the meager German defensive efforts, and could not reinforce itself. General Dempsey ordered a halt to the offensive as perceived and real supply issues and led to the conclusion that the offensive had reached its end and needed to pause so that it could be reinforced.

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Copyright © 2009 Thomas  Leckwold

Written by Thomas Leckwold. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Thomas Leckwold at:
tleckwold@gmail.com.

About the author:
Thomas Leckwold currently lives in northwest Georgia and served in the U.S. Army from 1985-1992. He received his B.B.A. in Economics from Kennesaw State University and his M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. He works at the corporate headquarters of a nationwide retailer in Atlanta as a Senior Inventory Analyst. His interests include reading both military history, political commentary, and the occasional science fiction. He also enjoys riding his motorcycle around in the scenic mountains that are in his area.

Published online: 3/22/2009.
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