MEN IN BATTLE
"The British soldier will face death with calm discipline . . . the American, looking to achievement, will die bitterly reaching for victory"—Shapiro
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean's War Correspondent
Editor's Note: Mr. Shapiro's “Men In Battle” was written last February and is based on his observations of British, Canadian and American troops in action in the Mediterranean theatre. He plans to make, it one of the chapters of a book to be published in early summer.
IT IS a popular legend that the Britisher is a good soldier, particularly in adversity; that the American is a dashing warrior in a battle of movement; that the Canadian is a rollicking cowboy in any kind of fight; that the Italian has no heart for physical suffering; and that the German is the best all-round soldier in the world. So far as I have been able to observe on the battlefields of the Mediterranean, popular legend in this instance seems to be properly founded in fact.
There are exceptions and limitations, of course. The most dashing troops I have seen in action belong to the British 78th Division; and perhaps the most courageous suicide action of this war was undertaken by a combat team of an American paratroop regiment that dropped on the main German concentration point at Avellino during the Salerno crisis and suffered almost total casualties. Commandos and Hangers vie with one another in gallantry without regard for popularly held national characteristics. The German in the last days of the Tunisian pocket was the worst soldier in the world.
It has been attested
in almost every western campaign of two great wars that the British soldier makes hls best effort when the battle is tough and the rasult in doubt, when conditions for mere existence are appalling and death is an imminent prospect. Given this set of circumstances the American is not as superbly effective. Yet when an offensive Is rolling and the objective clearly set, when the password is Forward! though the enemy is fiercely resisting, the American soldier is superior in action. In both cases the men may be equally brave and casualties equally heavy. There is this stern distinction in their behavior; The British soldier will face death and fight with calm discipline. The American soldier will face victory and die bitterly in the act of reaching for it. The one regards death with Old World resignation. The other abhors death and looks to achievement; he Is a child of the New World.
Operationally the distinction has been significant. During dogged, bitter fighting under wretched winter conditions in Tunisia, British troops distinguished themselves for staying quality and high morale. The American performance was indifferent. On the other hand no operation in North Africa was more brilliant than Major-General Omar Bradley’s climactic thrust along the north shore to Ferry ville and Bizerte; when the offensive was ready the Second
American Corps showed fabulous verve. Another case in point was the 34th American Division at Salerno. Under German hammer blows on Sept. 13-14, it all but disintegrated. But once the beachhead was secured, reinforced, and the move forward prepared, the same 34th fought and conquered with immense spirit on the outside wing of the Allied pivot manoeuvre on Naples.
I think I came to recognize this distinction when I saw my first American battle dead at Salerno. I was touched by the desolate tragedy of the moment. It was an uncomfortable emotional experience for me And unfamiliar. Many times I walked with Eighth Army burial parties as they moved moodily over the Sicilian hills. Now and again I watched them bury a man I knew and I was saddened. But somehow I felt he went into battle fully content to face death, and when it reached him he met it without regret. My first encounter with American dead brought a reaction far more bitter. The war seemed a great deal harder to bear. Though I did not know these dead, I felt keen hurt.
Perhaps the explanation lies in the manner of each country’s approach to war. There is a marked difference. The American youth now fighting has been brought up to believe war is a futile business, an unforgivable waste of life and substance. The revulsion against foreign conflict which enveloped the United States during the Republican twenties was succeeded by the dreamy idealism of American life in the Rooseveltian thirties. When the President declaimed in every campaign speech, “I hate war!” he echoed American thought with rare political acumen. And though American youth moved quickly to the conflict after Pearl Harbor, war was still a stupid business and death on the battlefield a desolate fate not within the traditional orbit of the American way of life.
There is a subtle difference in the British youth’s approach to war. Whether he springs from a drab mining village or from London’s West End, he has been conscious from childhood that death in the service of his country is an ever-present factor in his expectation of life. Latter-day idealism has impinged but sparingly on his attitude toward war. His earliest childhood recollection was probably a picture of his grandfather in uniform of the South African campaign. The medals of an uncle' killed in Flanders were his family’s proudest possession.
His induction into the Army came naturally to him; it was part of a pattern he could trace for as many generations as his family tree recorded. His pride in Britain stemmed chiefly from achievement in battle.
Neither glorifies war. But to the British youth service in war is a familiar adjunct to his attainment of adult status; to the American it is a tragic interruption in his primary ambition to build a life for himself in the vast spaces of his vibrant country.
The one accepts death as a link with
a great past, the other decries death because it has cut him off from the future. The difference is the inevitable result of two distinct threads of development.
U. S. Stores Superior
THERE are comparisons to be drawn on a more practical scale. American equipment is superior to British, particularly in such personal devices as helmets, webbing, messtins and water bottles. American quartermasters in the field have little Legree in them, probably because their supplies are lavish and accounting is haphazard. The result is that American troops m the line look cleaner and more soldierly than 'heir British comrades. American rations are far superior to British, In Sicily I moved with the Eighth Army for 30 days before a bakery unit was finally put into operation. At Salerno most American troops had freshly baked rolls five days after landing—while the battle of the bridgehead teetered on the brink of disaster.
Field leadership on the high level is excellent in the American forces. On the other hand, as yet their junior officers and noncoms are generally not up to the level of their opposite numbers in the British Army. This is to be expected of a nonmilitary national that has raised an Army of seven millions out of a permanent nucleus of about 300,000. In tough holding actions unit leadership is tested to the full, and the British sergeant and junior officer display a quality which can be developed only by a continuing military tradition and a peacetime professional Army of size and standing.
Welfare activity—mail, cigarettes, entertainment, spiritual and social organization—has been developed by the United States Army to a degree never before attained in war. The British soldier operating in an American area feels like a stepchild looking in from the outside at a Christmas party. He wonders why he should be paid so much less and ignored so much more by his country. Out of this resentment rises a barrier to full Anglo-American unity in the field. It seems to me that the English-speaking powers, having resolved to mix their formations into common armies and to fight together through to Berlin and Tokyo, would find it profitable to standardize the welfare of men who m-’st march shoulder to shoulder.
The Canadian soldier is a reflection of his own country. He draws both on the inspiration of the North American continent and on the tradition of his close British connection. He has a full content of animal spirit; too much, perhaps, to be as coldly effective as the British Tommy in a tight action. He displays also a natural approach to battle, which indicates within him a strong strain of Old World affinity. He may turn out to be a combination of the best qualities of his British cousin and his American neighbor; it is too early to tell. When I left the Canadians they were pushing along the Adriatic coast and they had not yet been tested by a formal German counterattack. Thus far they had accomplished everything required of them, and had laid the foundations of a tough reputation by giving no quarter in any of the limited actions they fought between Pachino beach and the Foggia plain.
The Canadians draw on the British Army for tradition. Their system of distinctive regiments is an outgrowth of colonial days when British units garrisoned the sprawling country. The officer corps dips deeply into Empire history for its inspiration. Family pride is a strong factor in molding the standard of behavior for Canadian officers; in a substantial percentage of cases this family pride stems from an ancestral service with the British Army. The American mode of life and t hought, so thoroughly established
in all other Canadian fields of endeavor, has scarcely affected Canadian fighting forces. In his bearing as a soldier the Canadian inclines to the pull of his British connection.
Canadian military organization is more liberal than the British, not as blatantly democratic as the American. In all auxiliary matters it traces a carefully selected middle path between its two great influenças; pay, entertainment, welfare — these are patterned on the British method but somewhat liberalized by the American influence in Dominion thought.
Cont'd on page 34
Men in Battle
Continued from page 12
Although I have spent many months with Canadian forces it is hardly possible for me to set down final conclusions on their battle characteristics. In the Mediterranean no large numbers of them have been in a position of desperate crisis. The performance of the Canadian brigade in the Hong Kong tragedy is a secret enclosed behind the impenetrable barricades of a Japanese prison camp. The complications of Dieppe make for difficulties in assessing the fighting quality of the two Canadian brigades involved. The operation was experimental and excessively difficult. The high percentage of Canadians taken prisoner may be due to thoroughly prepared German defense plans, or to faulty field leadership on our side. It is unlikely it was due to a lack of fighting spirit within the men, particularly if one is to judge by the almost terrifying zest for battle displayed by the Canadians in their romp through Sicily and southern Italy.
I have seen enough of Canadian behavior under fire, however, to realize that Dominion troops have distinctive characteristics of operational significance. If they are a true reflection of their rugged and spacious country they will turn out to be the most effective shock troops in our military roster.
Need of Unity
I have set down this catalogue of our military characteristics in order to point up the advantages of a closer fighting collaboration than we have yet developed during the western offensive. Admittedly we have taken some strides, particularly in the Mediterranean theatre, toward merging our forces so that the best characteristics of each is a contributory factor in the welding of the most powerful possible machine. Anglo-American military unity reached its highest point of development at Salerno where a British and an American corps were forced by unforeseen circumstance to fight on common terrain in a restricted area. A purely American force might have been swept from the bridgehead. A purely British force possibly would have made Salerno beach into a long-term Tobruk, of small value in the urgent strategic pattern which required prompt capture of Naples. The combination of British doggedness and American urge for headlong movement furnished the proper elements for success of the operation.
This is only a small beginning. Much
more must be done. The barriers of military imagination must be extended. National pride must develop a new set of values in keeping with the new ideal of common effort. The inordinate rivalry for national credits must be enclosed within sensible limits. Men like Eisenhower must feel completely free to apply their own realistic conceptions to the building of a proper force for a particular task. The best qualities of our various forces can be molded into an invincible body if leaders of good will are free from such curbs as national credits and home politics. The administrative problems of a mixed force can be solved by a realistic application of the theory of the common pool so often boasted by Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt. But an essential prerequisite to building the ideal English-speaking Army is the establishment of a common standard of pay, personal equipment and troop welfare.
It cannot be argued that men of different nationalities won’t fight well together. They have fought well together when military circumstance so willed it.
Perhaps the most stunning proof of the unity that comes to men in battle was furnished by German forces in Sicily. Their skilful delaying action was fought with the aid of a substantial percentage of press-ganged Poles and Jugoslavs. I spoke to many prisoners in German uniform who were conscripted from the occupied countries. Once in our hands they were bitter against the Germans and formed coteries of their own in temporary prison cages. I recall one—a Pole from the Poznan district. He told me the Gestapo came to his home one midnight, removed his father and his wife to a concentration camp, and gave him a severe beating. The next morning military police yanked him from his bed and transported him to an Army camp for training.
There were more than 100 Poles in a single artillery regiment opposing the Canadians in Agira valley, all of them, according to my informant, anxious to give themselves up the moment an opportunity presented itself. Until that time arrived, however, they fought effectively, sometimes magnificently, as part of the German Army.
Here was an example of men of ill will welded into an efficient unit by the bare application of military discipline. Who will say then that British and American troops must of necessity fight in their own national formations?
The superb quality of the German soldier was best illustrated by a British brigadier when he attempted to explain to me the principal reason for our failure to “bag” the German forces in Sicily. “The real trouble was this,” he said, “after three years of blitz tactics the Germans have become expert at defensive warfare. And old Jerry, after having his way in the air for so long, has now learned to fight without any air cover at all. He learns fast because he is perfectly disciplined. He’s really quite a terrific fellow.”
There is general agreement among all troops in the Mediterranean that the German soldier is “quite a terrific fellow.” His courage and stamina have never been in doubt. The standard of his training is probably the world’s highest, and he demonstrates this in battle by an uncanny skill with his weapons. It was the accuracy of German mortar fire, directed by small parties of troops who stood their ground with fanatical bravery, that preserved the retracting enemy line in Sicily to the very end.
The German is a curious combination of chivalry and ruthlessness. He has
one standard of morality on the battlefield; quite another toward civilian populations. Our troops, captured by the enemy and later rescued by our swift advance, reported his treatment of prisoners highly correct. On one occasion a Canadian officer was relieved of his binoculars while being escorted back of the lines by his German captors. He complained to the interrogating officer, and an hour later the binoculars were returned with apologies. He escaped after being in German hands three days. The German has a vast respect for military honors. No matter how fast his retreat, the neatness of the graves of his dead was quickly apparent amidst the litter of his hurried departure.
On the other hand his treatment of civilians was marked by methodical beastliness. In the little town of Rionero in southern Italy a retreating German rear guard paused at a farmyard to gather a few chickens. An aged farmer proceeded to defend his livestock with a spray of buckshot. Two or three of the Germans were nicked. The commanding officer immediately gathered up the first 21 male civilians he could find and shot them on the roadside. Our troops arriving an hour later found the women of the community wailing over the bodies of their dead. The city of Potenza was garrisoned by the Germans with utter correctness until the capitulation of Italy. On that day every substantial home in the city was looted.
The explanation lies in the fact that the German has been educated to respect the military virtues. Nothing else matters. A worthy opponent is a man to be respected. A helpless civilian counts for no more than a bit of shrubbery, which may be used for camouflage or cut away if it interferes with ranging.
An iron discipline has been superimposed on the German’s inbred characteristics of physical and mental hardness. 'Phis has made him a firstclass warrior. It has also robbed him of such human qualities he was endowed with in.his early innocence. When he betrays fear it is of a primary, almost subhuman, nature. When he displays correctness in behavior it is on orders. When ruthlessness is ordered he displays ruthlessness. He does as he is told. He works according to u plan laid down for him. When there is no plan laid down for him he doesn’t work. He is lost.
In Sicily and southern Italy the strategy of retreat adopted by the German High Command did not affect the soldier’s morale. He fell back according to strict orders, and with considerable brilliance. In the last days of Tunisia he was bereft of a plan. So he collapsed.
The iron discipline which has made the German an excellent soldier has also made him brittle of intellect. Endless retreat will not affect his morale so long as his command has made provision for retreat. He will go on fighting with the weapons and the plan furnished him. HLs mind will not be clouded by visions of the inevitable end of the road. He is too steelhardened a soldier. But one day his High Command will reach an impasse. Suddenly there will be no plan. And the German soldier will collapse. The end will have arrived on the wings of a moment.
The Italian capacity for war can be dismissed in the following manner: On the day of Italy’s capitulation a prison camp 30 miles north of Termoli holding 4,000 British and American officers was guarded by a full brigade of Mussolini’s best. The Italians outside the gates were jubilant about the news, no les3 than the officer prisoners inside.
Tl ;* ;;»l.mk*1 commandin'? (hr brigade made a little speech about (be loathsome Germans, then proceeded to wait for orders. A few hours later a cloud of dust in the distance heralded the approach of two truckloads of Germans, perhaps 40 men in all. The colonel looked upon his 4,000 men, then decided his plan of action. When the German trucks screeched to a stop the colonel stepped up to the first German officer and with a bow and a flourish offered his sword. The Italian troops ¡ filed past, dropping their weapons in j neat piles along the road. The prison camp was secured and the 4,000 British and American officers were joined by 4,000 Italians.
One volley would have wiped out the Germans. If the colonel had had guts.