Britain is falling for the same military trap that vanquished the Nazis

In this week of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, it is useful to pause and consider why the Allies prevailed on that day and why, just 77 days later, they had utterly destroyed two German armies in a crushing victory that ensured the outcome of the war was no longer in any doubt.

Over the past few anniversaries, the focus has understandably been on the men who were leaping from landing craft or floating down in their parachutes. But the world is a very different place even since 2019: we now have another brutal conflict going on in Europe on a scale reminiscent of the Second World War.

The moment of jeopardy for the Allies was in undertaking D-Day in the first place and the days that immediately followed – when the race was on as to who could bring to bear a decisive amount of men and materiel in the bridgehead. This race was won hands-down by the Allies, whose harnessing of air power ensured that the Germans could not swiftly reinforce Normandy, and whose use of naval power allowed gargantuan amounts of supplies to rapidly cross the Channel.

It was also because of the preponderance of vast amounts of firepower – mostly in terms of artillery – and basic equipment, whether it be tanks, trucks, bulldozers, or the mass of other supplies essential for conducting an all-consuming global war.

And what the British and subsequently the Americans realised early on was that quantity had a considerable value all of its own. Having the qualitative best helped, too, but numbers mattered. It’s why Britain built an estimated 132,500 aircraft in the war and why the United States built around 83,000 – the capacity of Twickenham – in 1943 alone. Germany, by contrast, built some 94,000 during the war and many of these were in the last 18 months and at a terrible cost to the production of other essential weapons.

Yet the narrative of the Second World War has persistently lauded German tactical skill and weaponry. The Tiger, for example, remains one of the best-known tanks of the war, a symbol of the Nazi war machine and its awesome power. It was, however, unspeakably complicated, cumbersome and far too sophisticated for robust front-line action. It was too wide for the European railways’ loading gauge. So it had to have different, narrower tracks for when it was ferried from A to B and then was switched to wider, combat tracks once unloaded. Because it was so heavy – around 55 tons – it required bigger, heavier maintenance equipment, too. Some 50 per cent were lost to mechanical failure.

More to the point, because Germany did not have the industrial capacity for heavy mass-production – except, perhaps, for fighter aircraft – only 1,347 Tigers were ever built and 492 King Tigers, a paltry number. By contrast, the Americans built around 49,000 Sherman tanks, while the Soviets built a staggering 84,000 T-34 tanks by one estimate. The most numerous German tank, the Panzer IV, amounted to some 8,000 in total during the entire war. Shermans – and T-34s – were lighter, more manoeuvrable, simpler and far easier to maintain in the field. Both were war-winners.

What lessons does this suggest today? Russian T-80s and 90s may be no match one-to-one against Challenger 2 and Leopard 2, but then again one leopard is no match for a pack of hyenas. The old adage of “mass matters” is as relevant in the battle for the Donbass today as it was for the battles of Kursk, a few kilometres to the east in 1943. For sure, if Ukraine had hundreds of western tanks, it could overwhelm Russian armour, but in “onesies and twoseys” they are fodder to be paraded in Moscow, or kept in the rear for we know not what.

Of course, technology has the potential to change the battle, but it has to be timely, and it assumes that the enemy does not have an immediate counter. There is no doubt that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down is producing weapons like the laser “Dragon Fire”, as well as “direct energy” weapons to knock thousands of drones and missiles out of the sky, that are world-beating today. However, the British disease of the “perfect being the enemy of the good” means that, by the time they come into service in a few years, they may be redundant.

It would appear we are doomed to repeat the mistake Nazi Germany made in the Second World War – relying on sophisticated weaponry that is too expensive for mass production and will never produce decisive battlefield results. The “new” British tank, imaginatively called Challenger 3, will be capped at approximately just 150 models. Sure, it will over-match any adversary, though going for 120mm smooth-bore main armament, when its predecessor’s 120mm rifled gun is seen as best in class in Ukraine, may be an error. This is not mass in any shape or form, and we wonder what scenario and battlefield the new British armour is being designed for.

Whoever leads the country next needs an urgent Defence Review. Two massive aircraft carriers and 150 tanks are no deterrence to the likes of Russia or China. And it is these countries which we need to design our deterrence around, not some imaginary enemy that suits single service rivalries. Ten billion pounds spent on tanks rather than carriers would give us the conventional deterrence so lacking at the moment, for instance.

There is nothing new, just stuff we’ve forgotten, so why do we persist with the dream that technology will always win? It didn’t work for Nazi Germany and it won’t work for us now. We seem to forget that the enemy also has a say in the fight, and to assume their tech is inferior to ours will have us underestimating our foes, which has never been a successful approach to combat.

The Russians have put “bean counters” in charge of their defence to ensure that they have the mass to threaten the West. We too have “bean counters” running our defence, but they seem unable to match their Russian counterparts.

As we try to deter the modern-day Hitler from heading west, let us not forget how we vanquished the last one – through mass and “blood and guts”. We still have the latter in spades but not the former. It’s time for Westminster and Whitehall to wake up.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. James Holland is a historian

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