A Military, Political and Global History of Armoured Warfare: An Interview with Alaric Searle

Alaric SearleWe recently had the chance to pose a few questions to Dr. Alaric Searle, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Salford Manchester and author of the new book Armoured Warfare: A Military, Political and Global History.  His book is an impressive work, encapsulating over 100 years of AFV history into a single volume of just over 250 pages.  While there are many books that trace the technical development of armored vehicles, this book places the history of the tank within a broader historical perspective, examining its impact in not only the military realm, but also the political and economic.

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How did you become interested in the topic of armored warfare?

While I was an undergraduate studying History at Edinburgh University, I took a course on the Great War in my final year. This led to my discovery of the writings of J.F.C. Fuller, so I then decided to write a final year dissertation on the British Tank Corps in the First World War.

You state in the preface of Armoured Warfare: A Military, Political and Global History that this book was the result of your experience teaching the subject at University. What are some of the biggest challenges in terms of the preconceived ideas or lack of knowledge that students bring to the class room regarding armored warfare?

Possibly the biggest challenge is encouraging the students to move away from old and very dated works, very specifically memoirs such as Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Leader. As I have been researching German military history for around twenty years, I am fully aware of the latest German research. The students cannot usually access this research, so it often takes some persuading to change some of their idealized views of German commanders. The other challenge is to communicate to the students that there were conflicts beyond Europe and that that experience is as interesting and significant as some of the more well-known wars and campaigns. This said, we do have some very good students at Salford, so I am often surprised at how much the students already know.

The book takes a rather broad “global” approach to the subject. Was it a challenge to condense the topic down into a book that was of reasonable length?

There is a simple answer to that question – yes! While it is always possible to condense chapters and text, what I did find was that some explanations became unclear, so I had to return to the manuscript later and clear up some of the lack of precision by adding in more explanation. What was most irritating with the word length was that one or two conflicts simply could not be included. The two most obvious ones are the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 and the Indo-Pakistan wars. If there is a second edition of the book, then I will definitely include those conflicts.

Were there topics addressed in the book you would like to return to in a later work in more detail?

Oh, yes. I am currently working on an article comparing war elephants and tanks. I delivered an early version of this idea to a seminar at Oxford University last year. The reaction was very positive, so this has encouraged me to expand my talk into a longer article. Some of the ideas I developed in the final chapter on the visual history of the tank I would likewise want to turn into some articles. And, I am working on a full-length monograph re-examining the military theories of Major-General J.F.C. Fuller. So, there is going to be more work on this subject appearing over the next two or three years from my pen.

Typically with books about armor, the cover photo features a Tiger tank or something along those lines. Your book has a rather interesting photo of what looks like a location in Vietnam with some M113 troop carriers and a helicopter taken from the roof of an M48.  Is there a reason for why that particular photo is on the cover?

Yes, it was a very deliberate decision to have a photograph which did not show a Tiger tank, a Sherman, northwest Europe or a location somewhere in Russia during the Second World War. I wanted a photograph which highlighted that this was a global history. In fact, I was very close to selecting a photograph which showed North Vietnamese infantry in Saigon in 1975. But a colleague advised me against using it! At the same time, the Vietnam photograph of helicopters and the M113 was probably more appropriate because it showed elements of the combined-arms team of modern armies, complete with M48 tank, M113 mechanized infantry ACAVs, logistics support and a helicopter. The title of the book was very deliberately chosen as Armoured Warfare (you’ll have to forgive my British spelling) rather than Tank Warfare.

What archival material have you used in the writing of the book? Was there anything in particular you found in the course of your research for this book that you were surprised by or excited about?

The archival material which I have consulted over the last 30 years is obviously far in excess of what I was actually able to use in the book itself. The notes at the back of the book allow the reader to see where I have got some of my material – British, German and American archives in the main. Hence, as a result of the length of time I have been working on the history of armor, I don’t think there is anything which I found in the archives which surprises me today. There are just two comments I would make here. The first is that I am convinced that field manuals are one of the most important sources when studying this subject. The second point is that when one sets out to write a “global history” there will be one or two occasional surprises. For instance, I knew very little about the Chinese and Japanese experience of armored warfare. I chanced across a photograph of a Chinese anti-tank infantryman, which caused me to stop and take a sharp intake of breath. The soldier was equipped with a vest, around the size of a flak jacket, full of pockets, into which explosives were placed. These poor guys had the job of throwing themselves under Japanese tanks in an attempt to destroy them through the detonation. This is shown in some Chinese films about the Second World War. The price of unpreparedness, you could say.

You have written about the early development and use of the tank, both in this book and in more detail in other works. How important a factor was the tank in the Allied victory on the Western front in World War I?  What sort of “return on investment” did the Western Allies get for the money and resources they invested in this new weapon of war?

Historians do not agree on the contribution of the tank to the Allied victory on the Western Front. However, I take the view that the tank made two vital contributions to victory in November 1918. The most obvious contribution was from early August 1918 until the German capitulation. As a key part of the combined-arms team, the tank was often instrumental in overcoming German resistance by destroying German MG positions, but also in finally cracking the morale of already demoralized units. The appearance of tanks was often the trigger which persuaded units to surrender. It should not be forgotten, though, that both in Britain and France the tank was a vital morale booster for both troops and the population at home. Tanks were a huge hit on the home front in Britain. Britain had never fielded a million-man army before and felt slightly inferior to the Germans. But the fact Britain had invented a new weapon of war sustained the population in their belief that they could win the war, despite all the set-backs in 1917 and early 1918.

You note in the book that while German armored operations during WWII are synonymous with the word “Blitzkrieg”, that word seldom appears in actual German doctrine of the time. What exactly do writers mean when they say Blitzkrieg? 

The problem with the word “Blitzkrieg” is that there is no universally accepted definition. This said, that does not mean that the term should be dismissed in the way it has been by some German historians. It does encapsulate in one word a number of features which can be found not just in the German campaigns, 1939-41, but also in the Arab-Israeli Wars in 1956 and 1967, not forgetting the Red Army attack on Manchuria in 1945. To summarize “Blitzkrieg” in brief, it is about the use of armor, artillery and aircraft in a lightning campaign, which exploits good communications systems, engineer forces, the deep attack, and seeks to exploit a sluggish or unprepared opponent. Risk-taking is the order of the day, as the commander’s ability to assess the weaknesses of his opponent, and know when to be careful and when to throw caution to the wind. Blitzkrieg campaigns seem to be successful whenever the opponent is unprepared, suffering from poor training and lacking in resolve.

Many books over the years have made the claim that German armored warfare theory in the pre-WW2 era was heavily influenced by the writings of British theorists such as Fuller and Liddell Hart. Was this the case?

There is little doubt in my mind that the writings of Fuller played a significant part in assisting the German Army in developing their ideas up until 1933, and even beyond. I am less convinced in the case of Liddell Hart. While there is little doubt that his writings were translated, the only real contribution I think he made was that his manoeuvre reports in the 1930s which he wrote as a journalist were read by the Germans. But he was largely describing what he had seen, and there is little sense that he is communicating any “tank theory” created by himself. In the case of Fuller, when the Germans had no tank forces to speak of his writings were essential in helping them think and discuss armored warfare. Fuller’s writings focused the mind; that was what the Germans needed before they were able to begin exercising and experimenting in large-scale manoeuvres.

You have written quite a bit about some of the WWII German generals in the post war period. How much influence did they have on armor doctrine in both West Germany and the US?

The influence of WWII German generals was perhaps indirect, both in the case of the Bundeswehr and the US Army. A fair bit of work has been conducted on the advisory role of former generals who wrote reports for the US Army. Some of that work no doubt did influence American officers, but it is quite hard to measure the actual effects. If one looks at Korea, arguably the influence was minimal, even if there was a rediscovery of German approaches in the 1980s. The influence of former German generals on younger officers who joined the Federal Armed Forces was definitely there, although the attitude to armed forces among the population was the exact opposite in West Germany after 1955 compared to in the Third Reich. Perhaps German approaches to armored warfare need to be seen as having influenced several NATO armies rather than only the Bundeswehr and the US Army.

You wrote the first chapter in a book of essays titled “Rommel: A Reappraisal.” Rommel of course has a reputation as a commander of tank forces that borders on the legendary.  Is it deserved?

No, I don’t think Rommel’s reputation is entirely deserved. In the Western Desert he often overplayed his hand. His orders were essentially to contain the British. He could have prolonged the campaign if he had been more cautious and not launched unnecessary counter-attacks. But as a former Captain from the Imperial German Army, I don’t think he could help himself – counter-attacks were in his blood. However, I think the jury is still out over Normandy. As I say in the book, the Germans needed to decide on one approach in defending Normandy – either, to put all their armor very close to the beaches, in the hope they could thwart at least some of the landings, or to keep all their armor back for a very strong counter-stroke. By trying to do both, which was Hitler’s compromise solution, they ensured that neither approach had any chance of success. That failure cannot be laid at Rommel’s door, though. But his absence from the front on 6 June 1944 because he had returned home for his wife’s birthday could be a source of criticism.

One of the points you make in the book is that armor has often played an important role in conflicts that were not regarded by military experts as “good tank country.” Do military leaders tend to underestimate the ability of armor to operate in rough terrain?

On each occasion in history where commanders and/or politicians decide that terrain cannot be conquered by armor, there are usually a variety of other causes which lead them to make this mistake. In the case of France in May 1940, the Maginot Line was the big investment which was going to underwrite French security. But that created an atmosphere in which it was very difficult to suggest that the Germans might use surprise, take risks and pass their armored divisions through a forest. Korea and Vietnam show again that officers do not study history enough. While there are very real challenges in some parts of the world, armor can be used in deserts, mountains, jungles and, under certain conditions, even cross rice paddies. Difficult terrain can support armor if commanders think carefully about how they can solve the terrain problems.

What lessons were learned by the major powers from the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973? What do these conflicts tell us regarding what would have happened in a potential match-up between Western and Soviet armored forces at that time? 

The lessons of the 1967 Six-Day War for armor were rather over-shadowed by the devastating pre-emptive strike the Israeli Air Force launched on their opponents’ air forces. In terms of armored warfare, the lessons reinforced many of those of the Second World War. However, in the case of the Yom Kippur War, there were a host of lessons, even if many of them had been learned (and re-learned) in previous conflicts. One of the most obvious was not to counter-attack wildly with armor unsupported by other arms. The IDF paid a high price for some of its poorly planned counter-attacks in the Sinai at the outset of the war. For me, however, the most obvious lesson was that defending successfully against large numbers of Soviet AFVs was possible even against odds of up to 10-1. What the fighting on the Golan Heights illustrated was that a desperate defense, even with improvised and quite small forces could mean the difference between a conflict going nuclear or remaining contained. We now know that Israel’s nuclear weapons had been put on alert. To use Robert McNamara’s phrase for the Cuban Missile Crisis, we ‘lucked out’ again in the Yom Kippur War. But for the IDF defense of the Golan, we might well have had a nuclear war. Had the Warsaw Pact armies attacked in Central Europe in the 1970s or 1980s, it is very difficult to know what would have happened. Still, the fighting on the Golan Heights suggests that even small actions, fighting over a bridge for instance, might have made a huge difference.

At several different times over the past century, people have declared that new technologies have signaled the end of the era of the tank. As your book shows, armor continues to be an important battlefield factor despite these oft repeated “death notices.”  Will armor continue to play a central role in land combat into the foreseeable future?

I am rather skeptical of the periodic proclamations of the “death of the tank”. Tanks and their supporting vehicles can not only take ground, they can hold it as well. As was shown in Iraq, they can be used very effectively in cities. The armed forces of the Russian Federation and the IDF continue to invest heavily in armored forces. One only needs to look at the most recent conflicts in eastern Ukraine, in Syria and in Iraq to see that tank and mechanized forces are not being discarded by armies who are fighting right now. There are a number of YouTube clips which show Syrian and ISIS tanks being hit by TOW and other antitank missiles. Yet, despite these losses both forces continue to rely on armored units in their offensives, especially the Syrians.

There has been some speculation about new technologies out-foxing the tank, such as land drones, equipped with cameras and missiles, “swarms” of mini-bomblets and aerial drones bringing munitions down on tanks rapidly. But as any intelligent officer or armor historian will tell you, a new weapon will not make the tank obsolete, it will simply lead to the other side equipping themselves with the same weapon, or adopting counter-measures. The new technologies will only lead to adaptations in the structure of the combined-arms team.

Where armies might not employ armored forces is likely to be in those cases where their governments have decided they cannot afford them. But if they come up against an opponent who possesses heavy armor, a brief reading of my book or other works ought to make clear what the outcome will be! Armored forces are expensive, but if you do not possess them you need to pray that your opponents won’t attack you.

*****

Armoured Warfare:  A Military, Political and Global History by Alaric Searle is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Publisher’s Description

This book charts the history of armoured warfare from the first use of the tank in 1916 right through to the 21st century, adopting military, political and global perspectives. Alaric Searle explores the origins of the tank, the part it played in the First World War and its contribution to the outcome of the war. He considers its role as a tool of propaganda, the military controversies of the interwar period and the employment of armoured forces in all the major theatres in the Second World War.

Since the First World War, major and medium-sized powers have invested heavily in armoured forces. Searle looks at the conduct of mechanised warfare in Korea, Indo-China and Vietnam, and during conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli Wars and the Gulf Wars. Armoured Warfare adopts a global perspective, providing the most comprehensive survey of the history of the subject currently available. With a detailed bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, it is an ideal companion for those studying armoured warfare, modern military history and war studies.

Reviews

“Alaric Searle has rendered a great service to the study of modern military history by producing the first comprehensive academic study of armoured warfare from its origins in the First World War to the present day. This book should be regarded as essential reading, not just for those with an interest in tanks, but for those who want to fully understand the evolution of warfare throughout the Twentieth Century.” – Timothy Bowman, Senior Lecturer in Modern British Military History, University of Kent, UK

“Armoured Warfare: A Military, Political and Global History is an intriguing approach to the history of the tank. Instead of the usual depiction of the technical route of development, this new study places it in the broader context of military doctrine and the combat experience. To further broaden the viewpoint, it offers a valuable international perspective on mechanized warfare.” – Steven J. Zaloga, USA

“The development and employment of armoured forces are amongst the most popular themes in the military history of the 20th and early 20th centuries and a vast literature exists. Alaric Searle’s Armoured Warfare is a uniquely valuable addition to this literature, offering just the sort of judicious, scholarly but well-written introduction to the subject required by students in universities and military academies and also by the intelligent general reader… As well as reviewing such relatively well-known ground as the development and introduction of the tank in the First World War, the rise of the German Panzer forces, the major battles of the Second World War and the Arab-Israeli Wars, Searle discusses the employment of armour in Korea and Vietnam, in the Indo-Pakistan Wars and in the Persian Gulf 1980-2003. He concludes with an intelligent discussion of the future of armoured forces which rightly ranges well beyond the usual narrow fixation on the “Main Battle Tank”. In short this is an exemplary introductory work on armoured forces and armoured warfare for the 21st-century student.” – Paul Harris, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK

“Accessible, comprehensive, and authoritative, Armoured Warfare is an excellent overview of the subject. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a thorough introduction to, or reliable review of, the mechanized military operations of the past century.” – Bruce Ivar Gudmundsson, Marine Corps University, USA

Comments

  1. Sonny Butterworth says:

    Thanks for posting! I always check your site daily, but I find your interviews with authors to be particularly interesting and hope to read more in the future.

    Like

  2. kaishanivKai Richmond says:

    I bought the book after this interview seemed to promise a study on theory and what I got was just the same old history, which we have all read before. As well as inadequate copy checking.

    Like

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