Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Battle of Arras

I’m announcing (very prematurely) my hopes to make an expansion pack for COTA that will cover a small part of the battle for France in 1940. Specifically, I will be working on a map, force list, and scenario for the battle of Arras. Below is some background on the battle.

At first glance, the British counterstroke at Arras appears to be a small gesture of defiance in the face of the overwhelming German blitzkrieg. Pitting two battalions and some slow-moving, underpowered British armor against the vanguard of the entire German panzer army seems like jabbing a penknife into the snout of a charging rhino. But Alistair Horne, in his book "To Lose A Battle", paints the British-lead strike as an engagement that may well have been the most decisive battle in all of WWII. And when you look at the battle, and think about the outcome, he may well be right.

Pouring forth from Germany, the Panzer Divisions had driven hard against the faltering French for 10 days. On the May 20, 1940 the foremost Panzers reached the English Channel. In the words of Horne: "The dog tired Panzer crews filled their lungs with sea air and wondered in amazement at how much more they had achieved than the Kaiser's army before them."

In the process of reaching the sea, they had encircled the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in a pocket along the coast, leaving the BEF with the option of either fighting its way out or evacuating via Dunkirk. Lord Gort, who commanded the BEF in France was, by this time, chiefly concerned with ensuring the survival of the BEF as Britain's primary ground force. However, at the most senior levels of the Allied armies, an operation was conceived for the British and French to make a concerted strike at the Panzer column that had encircled it, and to cut off the "head of the tortoise."

The position of the Germans at this point was indeed tenuous. In addition to out-doing the historical achievements of the Kaiser's army, the lead elements of the Panzer thrust had also outstripped their real-life infantry counterparts who were miles behind them. As a result, what separated the BEF and a number of French units from the main body of the French was a thin "Panzer corridor" absent of the German troops needed seal the fate of the BEF.

The great Allied counterattack was slow in coming together, as coordination between the French and the BEF was poor, and French seemed to be reeling from the devastating psychological effects of the Blitzkrieg. And there was the problem of resources. Attacked on every side, it was difficult for the British and French in the pocket to pull units out of the line and commit them to the attack. So, what was conceived by the higher ups as a strike by four divisions, would only be a riposte of two battalions of the BEF’s 150th, some armor and little to no support from the RAF.

A limited attack to interrupt German communications and supplies was all Gort felt he ever could accomplish. But like a pebble thrown into a pond, the ripples of Arras would eventually reach Berlin. Gort waited only a brief time to see if French support would materialize. Then he moved into action.

The attack was launched on the afternoon of May 21, 1940 and was lead by General Martel, Britain's foremost tactician in tank warfare. On the extreme right, the French provided a force of cavalry tanks and guns to cover the flank of the attack. Martel divided his forces into two columns. One equipped with 50 Mark I tanks, the other containing 16 Mark II tanks, called "Matilda's." Both the Mark I and the Matilda were infantry tanks - heavily armored, under-gunned compared to the German tanks, and slow moving.

The attack trundled into its first objectives, and scored early victories against German troops that had grown accustomed to easy wins. It was not long, however, before the Stukas arrived to drive the BEF infantry to ground. The armor kept on going without the infantry, achieving success against the opposing forces. But, without the infantry to make good on the ground gained by the armor, the attack became overextended and began to falter.

It was at the high watermark of the BEF's attack that Rommel is reported to have employed the 88mm anti-aircraft gun as an antitank weapon for the first time, easily defeating the heavily armored Matilda, and halting the attack. Eventually, the 25th Panzer arrived to reverse the BEF’s gains.

Two days later, without the approval of his superiors, Gort began pulling his troops back toward the beaches of Dunkirk. His motive was clearly to preserve the BEF.

In all the attack achieved a only marginal battlefield victory in men and material for the BEF. The Germans reported to have lost significant numbers of men and tanks. The BEF also lost the greater part of its tanks. But the psychological victory of the British over the Germans was the achievement that may have been the most decisive of the war. The attack by Martel and the tough skin of the Matilda must have shaken the Germans. Horne describes the them as feeling a certain amount of disbelief that their attack was going so well to begin with. German reports filtering back to the high command described hundreds of enemy tanks and five enemy divisions. By the time of Arras, the Germans were apparently ready to believe that they had finally run out of luck. And so they paused.

This temporary abatement gave the British time to pull back and organize the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” which returned the BEF to England, giving the English the confidence and spirit to resist Hitler and buying time to bring the U.S. and the U.S.S.R into the war and assure victory over the Third Reich.

Gort would also survive the German Blitzkrieg, but one can only imagine the effects of Dunkirk. Monty - who was then only commander of the 3rd Division - met Gort on the beaches of Dunkirk amidst the evacuation and wrote in his diary about Gort "C-in-C very pathetic site, a defeated and dissapointed man."

But there can be no denying Gort's tremendous achievement in stepping forward and delivering a major psychological blow to the Germans at Arras thus preserving the BEF to fight again another day.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Pardon My Dust

I have to find a new host for the files for this site. The host where I store the images and game files is being transferred to another owner. Therefore, you'll not be seeing the images and "stuff" for a while.

In other news, I embarassed myself today by completely forgetting what the password I used for my saved tournament game. I sent the file to Panther and I hope they can dig the password out of the file for me.

So, rather than finish up round one against Isacco, the Milano Master of Disaster, he and I started a new game against one another: "Battle of the Boxtel Bases." I took command of the vaunted Axis forces, and Isacco lead the Allies. We played for two hours and I have to admit that he is getting the better of me. Before we could finish, my son woke up from his nap, and my wife strolled in to remind me of the things I needed to get done, so I had to save the game and bid Isacco farewell till next time.

All this while he was driving a Guards armored regiment right across my flank, threatening to envelope the entire 1034 infantry regiment in Boxtel proper. I had recognized the threat and had given them orders to pull back from the city, but they were so war weary, I couldn't get them to move. Grrrrrrr.

Mercifully, I won't have to watch the disaster unfold for another week or so.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Another Hero Gone

Last week, Bill Kasson passed away. He was a childhood friend of my father, and they served together in the U.S. 71st Infantry Division during WWII.

The picture above is of my father (left) and Bill. The photo was taken at Stanford University after they finished basic training. They were enrolled in specialized training programs at Stanford when suddenly they shipped to Europe as replacements for the many soldiers who were wounded or killed in the early fighting of the invasion of France.

In the photo, they look excited and proud; ready to embark on the adventure of a life time. And what an adventure it was - across France, into Germany, and ending the war in Austria. Bill carried the 45-lb base of a 81 mm mortar a good part of the way, through eight river assualts, a handful of battles, and the liberation of a concentration camp.

Military life meant much to Bill - much more than it did to my dad. While my father was proud to have served and the war figured into his life in many ways, he never had the desire to wear a uniform again and never wanted to spend another night outdoors. Bill, however, spent 30 years in the military reserves and ultimately lead his reserve unit.

During the war, my father and Bill served in different regiments and saw little of each other. One of my dad's favorite stories was how, after crossing the Elbe in a small boat, he scrambled ashore to where a G.I. extended a hand down the river bank to help him up. It was Bill.

They were able to re-enact the happy moment in the 1980s when they followed the Division's path across Europe. Spending time with Bill remembering the old days brought my Dad much joy. In 1986 my dad died. Bill remained a devoted friend of the family ever since, and we will miss him.

I'd like to think that, as Bill went to go home to the Lord, my dad was waiting to extend a hand and help him up those final few steps.