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An old adage states that military amateurs worry about tactics while military professionals worry about logistics. It’s a bit of an overstatement. Sound tactical plans, executed properly can produce decisive results. But, at a higher level, the adage relays an important truth. Putting resources where they’re needed is a prerequisite for victory and that comes through good logistical planning.

Logistics in the Ukraine War

Stalled Russian Supply Convoy

We are witnessing the pitfalls of poor planning for logistics in the Ukraine War. The Russian Army collected large armored formations along its border before launching them into Ukraine in February. From the start, evidence of weak planning began to show. Long lines of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles were stuck on roads with nowhere to go. Reports of abandoned vehicles with empty fuel tanks circulated. Troops complained of not getting enough food and ammunition, leading to morale problems. The offensive stalled in little more than a week. The Russians discovered that large, powerful combat formations can only go so far without a functioning logistical tail.

Soviet era tactical doctrine, still in play within the Russian military, stipulated the width of a unit’s avenue of advance. For an attacking regiment to break an opponent’s line, a regiment concentrates on a front one kilometer in width. At that density, the vehicles would be nearly hub to hub if stretched on a straight line. However, conditions did not favor putting Russian tanks in linear formation. In Ukraine late winter thaws and spring rains can turn farm fields to slush, impassable for even track vehicles. That’s why the Russian tank columns kept to the roads. Confined to a narrow road, an armored force can string out several kilometers—easy pickings for an opponent’s artillery.

The Russians tried to cram too many combat vehicles into too small a frontage. Much of their firepower was left idling on the roads as the lead elements bogged down under Ukrainian fire. Careful military planners have to look beyond doctrine for more practicable solutions.

Keeping an Offensive on the Move

Once a combat formation has been committed it must be supported. Logistical planners have prescribed estimates for the daily tonnage a single brigade consumes in food, fuel, and ammunition. To reach forward elements with necessary supplies, the brigade needs support vehicles capable of carrying that amount of tonnage. To give some idea of the challenge, consider a single 6-gun artillery battery firing one 30-minute preparation. That battery would expend nine tons of ammunition in one mission, enough to empty two 5-ton trucks. Added to the daily consumption of rations, water, diesel fuel, lubricants, spare parts, etc. the supply convoy gets long. Logicians have guidelines for the extent and quality of the road network required to support a brigade in combat. The Russians apparently overlooked that calculation.

MP Directing Traffic on the Red Ball Express Route

The logistical task gets greater the deeper into an opponent’s territory the army goes. More miles between depot and forward units means more capacity needed to haul and longer lead times to deliver. For example, the US Army faced this problem in 1944. After the Normandy breakout, the Allies advanced across France and Belgium in little more than a month. The army kept the advance moving with innovative measures like the Red Ball Express, a prioritized resupply route for trucks. I discuss some of these supply issues in my book Battle Hardened. More recently in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US combat forces outran their supply vehicles. Commanders paused the rapid advance long enough to allow logistics to catch up. After a couple of days, the well-stocked armored columns captured Baghdad.

Eventually, armies must plan for extending bulk deliveries of critical items farther forward. They have to lay pipelines and construct new rail lines to push fuel and supplies closer to the forward units. As far back as the Civil War, the US Military Railroad brought supplies to Grant’s army around Richmond and Petersburg.

Global Force Projection

Deploying forces overseas is the greatest logistical challenge. Access to ports is critical. A force can either use those of friendly nations or seize an enemy port by amphibious assault. Manila, Cherbourg, Cam Ranh Bay, and Doha are examples of foreign ports used by American forces in previous wars. The docks, warehouses and transportation hubs of deep-sea ports are essential for offloading the resources coming off ships. To project an army across an ocean requires a huge merchant marine lift capacity and naval strength to protect it. Over the last 200 years only America, Japan and western European nations have demonstrated such a capability. Meanwhile, Russia has had difficulty projecting force more than 200 kilometers beyond its own borders.

Projecting an army into enemy territory takes more than superior firepower. It requires logistics. Planning for logistical support, supplies, and the assets to deliver them are keys to success.

I write stories—stories drawn from past military conflicts where cold calculation and tactical expertise play in high stakes contests under some of the most intense and brutal conditions people will ever face. My stories relate what men (and now women) endured in combat. However, I feel it is important to put those experiences within the context of the mission and higher-level decisions that placed the soldiers, sailors and airmen in harm’s way. I have no interest in rehashing overdone topics or fanning nationalistic fervor. The campaigns and battles that hold the most appeal to me are ones that instruct readers on the application of the military art, yet are unfamiliar or misunderstood. To absorb new lessons from past wars I try to unearth overlooked facts, examine different perspectives or explore fresh analyses.

Why I Wrote About an Obscure War

Curiosity first drew me to the West Indies expedition of 1740-42, the subject of my latest publication. Much had been written about the War of Jenkins’ Ear 275 years ago but not much since. The more I researched, the more I became fascinated by the scale of the campaign, the magnitude of the British-American failure and the squabbling over the many reasons for its miscarriage. The list of British oversights, misfortunes and errors has more entries than Kevin Bacon’s address book: poor strategic planning, a yellow fever epidemic, slow proceedings by the army, lack of cooperation between land and sea forces, lousy recruits, ladders that were too short, etc. However, none of the most cited causes could explain the debacle. This expedition needed another look.

British Attack on Cartagena

Unnoticed details emerged that made me question commonly accepted facts. The vast majority of British and Americans (and Spaniards) who perished died from disease rather than combat. Yellow fever was the supposed culprit, yet the deaths soared after the British withdrew from Cartagena and continued after the surviving troops had gained immunity from the flavivirus. Yellow fever could not have beaten the British at Cartagena nor could it have caused the majority of later deaths. Another interesting oversight, no one had ever put together the details of the British army’s climactic assault on Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

Perspectives

British, Spanish and American historians have written about the expedition but mostly from their own national perspectives. I thought it important to look at all three points of view to get a more complete picture of events. Comparing the decisions and timelines of the opposing commanders unveiled key decision points in the Cartagena campaign missed by previous accounts and revealed the true drama of the struggle. The British had the Spaniards on their heels when they abruptly gave up, much to the astonishment and delight of their opponents.

Because Admiral Vernon’s narrative dominated public discourse, the majority of historical treatments have come through the lenses of naval historians who pointed accusing fingers at the pace of the army’s siege operations. What has been missing is a critique of land operations based on the tactical doctrine of that era.

Admiral Edward Vernon

Lessons from Doctrine

An analysis of the terrain, military situation and the tactics of siege warfare turned up an interesting conclusion. The general, who had been roundly faulted for the campaign’s demise, had been condemned for what he did right. When he later deviated from sound doctrine the army suffered a terrible setback. I also found myself at odds with most histories of the expedition which laud the conduct of Admiral Vernon, the sea commander who, at the least, must share blame for the expedition’s collapse.

Finally, my focus on this colonial era military adventure sharpened once I understood that its lessons on force projection, joint operations and preservation of the force’s health and morale are as salient today as they were in the eighteenth century. The commanders and common servicemen in 1740-42 struggled under conditions that were both challenging and unfamiliar for people coming from the temperate zone. Their ability or inability to see through the mass of confusing facts and assumptions and to correctly perceive the most critical issues produced a disastrous defeat for Britain and an unexpected victory for Spain. The conditions of warfare have changed drastically since the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but modern warriors still face the same dilemmas as those confronting the Britons, Americans and Spaniards who fought in the Caribbean tropics so long ago.

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Some military expeditions require the combined skills and resources of two or more armed services to achieve an objective. Amphibious operations use armies to seize overseas objectives and the navy to get them there. In the past, the commanding general and admiral shared command, “each supreme in his own sphere.” Kings and governments expected them to work together to obtain victory, though cooperation could not be guaranteed.

Joint operations challenged leaders because generals and admirals did not understand their partner’s capabilities and limitations. In his book, The Influence of Seapower Upon History: 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan characterized such misunderstandings.

“The army thought that the navy might have beaten down stone ramparts ten feet thick; and the navy wondered why the army had not walked up the same ramparts, which were thirty feet perpendicular.”

Failed Joint Operations - Santiago de Cuba

In my book, Disaster on the Spanish Main, I discuss the inept command structure of the British attempt to capture Santiago de Cuba in 1741. A massive British expeditionary force had just returned to Jamaica from their failed siege of Cartagena. The two commanders Vice Adm. Edward Vernon and Maj. Gen. Thomas Wentworth then set their sights on Santiago. Wentworth wanted the navy to blast its way past Castillo San Pedro de la Rocha and land his troops inside the harbor. Vernon refused to risk his ships in the narrow channel under the castillo’s guns.

Without consulting the army, Vernon landed the troops at Guantanamo Bay, fifty miles east of Santiago. He expected the army to march across enemy territory, over forest trails with no draft animals then assault a castle. Once the general saw the terrain and the distance to be marched, he refused to budge. Instead of working through their differences, both commanders became obstinate and accused the other of sabotaging the operation. After the mission was abandoned some of the army officers sent a proposal to London. They begged that in future amphibious operations, “the chief command of the whole should be lodg’d in a single person.”

Tragic Joint Operations - Operation Cobra

In World War II, General Eisenhower managed to get unified command of the three combatant arms for the Normandy landings. Eisenhower, a big proponent of joint operations, once said, “When you put sea, ground and air power together, the result you get is not the sum of their separate powers. You multiply their powers, rather than add.” Under a single commander, Allied forces worked together more effectively but still had issues sorting out combined missions.

Target Box for Operation Cobra

To achieve a breakout in Normandy Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley planned to bomb part of the German defensive front. He wanted to drive into a void created by heavy bombing. Bradley plotted a “target box” just beyond a highway to be saturated by British and American strategic bombers.

During a planning session the general and air staffs disagreed about the direction of the air attack. Bradley wanted a parallel approach to the target box, so the bombers would not fly over his troops. The air commanders opposed the parallel approach because it jammed the planes into a narrow corridor. They argued for a perpendicular flight path that posed less risk for their crews. The meeting broke up without a clear understanding of how the bombers would make their runs. Without consulting Bradley, the air commanders later decided to attack the target box at a right angle to the front.

Operation Cobra achieved mixed results. The strategic bombers inflicted serious destruction, though not total, on the German defense. The benefit of the carpet bombing got offset by numerous short bomb loads dropped on friendly troops. The units making the attack suffered confusion and the loss of over 100 killed and nearly 500 wounded. Bradley’s penetration succeeded in breaking through but he swore off using strategic bombers ever again.

Successful Joint Operations - Fort Fisher

There have been notable examples of successful joint operations. During the Civil War the Confederates fortified the point of land at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. This fortification, Fort Fisher, had kept the vital port of Wilmington open to blockade runners. After an abortive attempt on Fort Fisher in December 1864, the Union organized a second attack in January.

Rear Adm. David Porter and Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry coordinated an amphibious landing north of the fort. The navy provided massive fire support against Confederate positions while Union troops came ashore on January 13. The ships shifted their fire to the fort as the army cut off the peninsula and made its approach. After a continual bombardment the army and a supporting force of marines assaulted the fort’s northern face. The troops penetrated the fort while communicating their progress with the navy. The ships kept shifting their fire ahead of the advance until the Confederates surrendered. Careful planning and communication produced a decisive Union victory against a formidable defensive position.

Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher

Lessons

In sum, joint operations depend on each armed service understanding the resources, tactics and shortcomings of the others. The operational plan demands input from each service to involve joint assets to their fullest capability. A single unified commander should settle disputes and disagreements between services. During execution, all services must overcome systems incompatibilities to inter-communicate and keep the battle properly coordinated. When joint planning, communication and control come together the results can achieve the multiplicative effect Eisenhower described.

Portrait of Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley

This week marks 75 years since the German Army’s last offensive in France, Operation Luttich, or the Battle of Mortain. Hitler personally ordered the surprise panzer attack on August 7 for the purpose of regaining the initiative in the West. The Germans tried to slice through the flank of the American breakout and drive to the Normandy coast. They hoped to cut off Patton’s Third Army and push the Allies back to the beaches. It failed miserably. The panzers only made local penetrations then spent days holding off American counterattacks. By the time they gave up, Patton’s army had circled behind them in a bold sweeping maneuver. As a result, the Allies slaughtered much of the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies as they retreated through the Falaise-Argentan Gap. General Omar Bradley called the German decision to attack Mortain, “The greatest tactical blunder I’ve ever heard of.”

Tactical Failure

Map of Western Front August 1944

In retrospect, the attack at Mortain looks like a hopeless, forlorn misadventure. First, gathering the panzer divisions to form the strike force robbed the rest of the western front of the resources necessary to hold their defense together. Second, even with the collected panzers, they lacked the strength to achieve a breakthrough at Mortain. Third, after the initial attack stalled, the Germans sent more forces “into the lion’s mouth.” Fourth, they stayed too long and let the Allies crush their armies in Normandy. Fifth, the huge losses forced the Germans to abandon France rather than fight a delaying action. Most historians agree with General Bradley. The Battle of Mortain was a foolish military debacle that caused the collapse of the German western front. It serves as another example of Hitler’s poor military judgment.

From a tactical perspective, I agree. Mortain was a disaster for the Germans. However, Hitler’s decision makes more sense when viewed from a strategic point of view.

Strategic Perspective

Within a few days of the Normandy Landings, the Allies held a firm lodgment in France. The German high command had a choice. They could draw forces from the eastern front to crush the Allied foothold in Normandy or contain it with the troops they had. They chose the latter. Hitler focused on the eastern front. As long as the Allies could be stalemated in hedgerow country, he wasn’t worried.

The July breakout, code name Operation Cobra, changed the strategic situation. The Allies forced their way out of Normandy and moved boldly into central France. Suddenly, Hitler and the German high command perceived the strategic threat of a true second front forming in the west.

Hitler's Gamble

Hitler conferring with his staff

Looking at the narrow breakout between Avranches and Mortain, Hitler saw an opportunity to restore the strategic situation. A powerful panzer thrust might sever the Allied penetration and choke off Patton’s Army. The German commander in the west, Field Marshal von Kluge, warned about risking everything on an iffy attack. The rest of the western front could give way while the Germans committed their panzers at Mortain. Always a gambler, Hitler went all in. If it worked, the second front would be contained, once again. If it failed, the Germans would have to abandon France, something they would have to do anyway.

Hitler’s mistake was launching such a panzer attack in 1944 and expecting the results of 1940. The German armored thrust at Mortain had no chance of success. The Allied armies amassed too much firepower to simply charge through with panzers. The four panzer divisions were not strong enough to break through the single American infantry division defending Mortain. Allied dominance of the air prevented any major movement during daylight. Furthermore, the Americans had plenty of tanks in the vicinity to blunt any German penetration. In the end, General Bradley allowed Patton to continue his sweep while he drove back the Germans with infantry divisions.

Books on Mortain

I wrote extensively about the 12th Infantry Regiment's involvement in the American counterattack at Mortain in my book Battle Hardened. The entire battle is described in depth by Mark J. Reardon's Victory at Mortain.

Conclusion

I believe historians have misread the Battle of Mortain. They have concentrated on German tactical failures and the disastrous results that followed. Bradley and others have written the battle off as a huge blunder. In truth, Mortain was Hitler’s last effort at retrieving a crumbling strategic situation with another desperate gamble.