Guerrilla Warfare and Irregulars in Combat
PrefaceGuerrilla Warfare and Irregulars in combat with particular reference to Special Operations Executive 1944.
This phenomenon has emerged as a major feature of military and para military conflict in the 20th Century. Hitherto battles were fought pitched and those battles ended quickly yet ‘wars’ could last a long time e.g. The War of the Roses the English Civil War, the Crusades, the Thirty years War, the Hundred years war and the Napoleonic Wars. These ‘wars’ were ultimately brought to a close by a traditional battle or a series of defeats – one army against the other. A defeated Army could be slaughtered as in the crusades. Quite often the motto be magnanimous in victory applied and the vanquished lived to see another day (if not in battle) (note the Spanish irregulars in the Peninsular War early 19th century harassing the retreating French).
2. The Ancient Concept of Combat
The gladiatorial confrontation (man on man) the duel – Pistols at Dawn sword play jousting – Fighting with pikes, spears, swords and shields, muskets, rifles, revolvers, daggers and bayonets drawn. The essential point is you faced up to your enemy and took him front on. Yes, ambush and surprise have been part of conflicts since Roman times even before: The Trojan Horse. With an ambush of one armed force on another there was then an open battle to decide the outcome and each army/tribe/armed force faced the other. The aggressive ambush traditionally was broadly speaking between enemies of equal strength (even General Custer and Little Big Horn). The ambush is the opening move for one army to engage another e.g. British General Wolfe and the Abraham Heights Quebec Canada against Montcalm – General of French troops.
3. South Africa – Boers (1900 – 1901)
The Boers introduced the idea of the irregulars in the 20th Century to continue to fight against the British Empire in Transvaal. They would fight a particular British unit they felt they could take on, and then they would melt away into the bush. Modern irregular Warfare as we know it was born in South Africa in approximately 1900, the commandos and Jan Smuts and the like. The Boers would not lie down – the essence of all irregulars.
4. The Guerrilla Wars in Europe
These took place not so much in the First World War 1914 – 1918 as in the Second World War 1939 – 1945 against the hated Nazi German occupying forces in France, Yugoslavia as it became and Italy. The British, through Special Operations Executive stimulated and supplied these irregulars or partisans. The Germans replied to these Guerrilla attacks and tactics on their soldiers with atrocities on the local populace - You cannot meet wrong with wrong. Germany had no right to occupy these countries only de facto control – it had no jure power. The German generals concerned e.g. Alexander Löhr, Commander of Belgrade and Kesselring C in C Italy (1944) took the view matters should not drift under orders from Hitler. Those generals needed little encouragement – they wished to protect their German soldiers and to be seen to be doing so through these reprisals on Civilians. They knew the War was closing, yet order should be maintained in their judgement whilst German military units were occupying these zones (I have addressed the anti-Semitic policy of the Nazis in a previous essay – The Senseless Slaughter of Millions in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1933-1945). There was a serious danger; internal discipline in German military units would break down if no action was taken in response to partisan/resistance operations against those German forces.
Like it or not, the German military tide was ebbing in 1944 during the height of the French Resistance in mainland France and the Italian partisans activities and Tito’s partisans/irregular offensives. What military benefit was obtained from these operations? To tie down German troops, we are told. I would accept that case is arguable but the War has been lost by 1944 and no one could win it for Germany, not even the rocket bombs. The resistance groups in Europe by their subversive actions against German units provoked the officers of the German Wehrmacht to retaliate – this was night follows day stuff. Surely you protect innocent women, men and children rather than expose them to this brutality – it was not worth the cost in civilian lives; non combatants perishing (German military discipline did not crack). We have a duty to preserve and conserve the lives of non-military personnel. I question the conventional wisdom of Special Operations Executive in encouraging and supplying these underground movements to in effect, liquidate German military personnel. Amongst civilians every single life counts. Clearly no one could control the partisans and their leaders, who were quite often communist, based in cells and inspired by that alien ideology. SOE could have exerted a restraining influence on these resistance movements – it may even have done so. It made the situation worse however, in aiding and abetting these irregular ambushes on German units. The citizens on the ground in these occupied territories were the ones who suffered.
Armed combat should be honourable – it is a noble art. Strangely enough Churchill and Eden did not support the July 1944 Bomb plotters in Germany (see R A Lamb: The Ghost of Peace). War cannot proceed without respect between adversaries if it is to be honourable combat. It will become a victory at too great a cost – a pyrrhic victory – otherwise. Clearly the Germans lost our respect by their atrocities against innocent civilians and rightly so. Due to reprisals the allied victory was becoming costly in lives of the non-combatants in France, Italy and the Balkans.
7. Postscript – Kesselring and Löhr German Generals
Kesselring, Löhr and those other German generals in occupied zones appear to have been gratuitously mean and brutal in their orders leading to reprisals. I suspect the truth is different. They wished to stamp out the menace of the resistance in Italy, the Balkans and France and they knew that thereby they were putting their own heads on the block, in the post War scenario which was fast approaching. Germany was retreating quickly from these three theatres save Italy in 1944. These Generals would find it very difficult to hide (they would always be on the run) – Löhr was arrested by British Secret Service in Austria 1948 then sent to Belgrade and executed after a Court Martial on Tito’s orders. Thus they were not pleasing themselves but going to their condemnation and death.
As generals should, they gave orders and obeyed them (even from the armed forces head the Fuhrer) – These were ‘superior orders’ for them and their subordinate officers. At that time you paid with your life for disobeying Hitler and the same applied to lower ranking officers in the German Army disobeying their generals. You had no choice - that was the nature of the German military machine (see R M Lamb: The Senseless Slaughter of Millions in the Nazi Concentration Camps 1933-1945). Like it or not, Special Operations Executive and the Resistance movements in Europe in 1944 were ‘singeing Hitler’s moustache’ and thus he ‘lashed out’ with the fury of a wounded hunting beast and ordered reprisals. You pay the penalty of history’s condemnation for inhumanity, win or lose; even Bomber Harris was tarred with that brush. War is war – whether played by the rules or not. The German Generals aptly proved this point in WWII.
8. Further Note – The Vietnam War (1965 – 1973)
It was fought out by a conventional army (US marine corps) with de jure power from Saigon over South Vietnam territory, against an extremely well organized irregular military enemy the Vietcong, supported by the North Vietnam Army (Ho Chi Minh: the leader). On occasion the enemy showed its face to the US Marine Corps and there were pitched battles on a small and local scale e.g. Spring Offensive Khe Sanh. It was not a classic Guerrilla War and the US did not occupy the disputed lands in totality in strength, unlike the Wehrmacht in WWII (see my Vietnam essay to be published for political side). A case where prudence, dictated withdrawal due to mounting US casualties unlike Iraq and Afghanistan where US forces established stability finally. The Germans were beaten in the field in WWII. The US Generals wisely de-escalated Vietnam – The US having made its heroic stand against that dreadful enemy communism in its military guise. It would have been another victory like this and we are ‘finished’ to have persevered to the bitter end (a pyrrhic victory in another meaning) reason prevailed. We can be grateful for the outcome.
As a matter of policy, stability should be built on freedom within de jure status. On both points the US was justified in sending troops into South Vietnam.
9. Syria 2012 - 2013
In the current Syrian conflagration we will lack de jure power in supporting the insurrection and there is no alien supra – National ideology suppressing the rebels to justify such a role – only a repressive Baathist regime that will fall on its own if the rebels have their way. The issues do not justify Anglo-American armed intervention. America would be wise to stay out – there is no real enemy of the US and Britain in Damascus - We did not intervene in the Spanish Civil War 1936 – 1939. War is bitter and the Syrians have brought it upon themselves. We must stop feeling bad about it and provide humanitarian aid only. We must insist on safe passage for that humane/medical assistance – a corridor through the conflict zones. Essentially the Syrian conflict does not amount to Civil War in true sense, however horrific the casualty toll amongst Civilians.