I recently had the privilege of accompanying the Commander Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (COMARRC) and his senior HQ staff to Sicily. The purpose of my presence, and that of my esteemed colleague Dr Niall Barr, was to act as an historical advisor on the annual COMARRC staff ride. This five day exercise draws together an international band of high-ranking participants from across the three services, a select number of British 1 and 2 star invitees, as well as a sprinkling of diplomats and senior civil servants. The purpose of the event is clear; by examining historical examples of strategic and operational planning, of decision-making and military/political judgement, and of the eternal principles of warfighting and campaigning, HQ ARRC seeks to think. Through the medium of presentation, debate and discussion, and always under the watchful eye of COMARRC, participants strive to develop their insight and understanding of those aforementioned elements of conflict and warfare. Their aim is to do so in sophisticated enough a fashion so as to allow that insight and understanding to prove instructive for the intellectual development of an organisation responsible for deploying against any one of a range of contemporary threats.
All very admirable in terms of intent, it has to be said. But the central conceit of the staff ride i.e. the use of historical examples to promote understanding of contemporary and future conflict scenarios, provokes scepticism in the minds of many; an entirely understandable reaction. After all, the original purpose of the Stabs-Reise in the mind of Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder, Chief of the Prussian General Staff for three decades in the mid-to-late 19th Century and the individual who popularised the Staff Ride concept, was never so ambitious. He sought to study future conflicts certainly, but in the context of a form of warfare – cavalry, artillery, infantry – that would be largely unchanged from the historical examples under examination or the theoretical tactical exercises being set for his staff. Yet the ARRC, as NATO’s primary deployable HQ, is poised to react to threats as diverse as lightly armed insurgent groups, civil emergencies, or the full weight of a peer-competitor’s conventional and unconventional capabilities. In what way therefore does a study of the liberation of Sicily in 1943 benefit modern military planners charged with surveying a radically different strategic and politico/cultural landscape?
The skill lies in examining what hasn’t changed, and what won’t change. And if one prefers to address war through the lens of its moral, physical and conceptual (intellectual) elements, then there’s much to draw insight and inspiration from. Those who believe that the modern strategic environment, and indeed modern warfare, breaks new ground in terms of complexity, dynamism and uncertainty might want to take a closer look at the choices facing western statesmen and military chiefs prior to and during WWII. Particularly the complexities of alliance building and the inevitably divergent military and political strategies that accrued in the face of multiple totalitarian regimes acting in concert; the management of global logistical requirements and their sequencing with vast and often separate and competing military campaigns; the management of national industrial, economic and fiscal policies in a way that sustained a potentially ruinous war effort; the maintenance of national will and morale; and the sheer intellectual requirements placed upon subordinate military commanders charged with unlocking the powerful physical barriers (armies, navies and air forces) obstructing the implementation of respective national strategies. So war is indeed an intellectual, moral and physical challenge of the highest order. It always has been, and always will be. In fact you can argue that no war we are likely to fight in the future will be as intellectually, morally and physically challenging as those we have already fought, hence we have much to learn from them; a sort of ‘trickle-down theory, if you will.
And in the case of Sicily, it’s simply a fascinating study in all respects. It was a campaign borne of strategic compromise, a product of one nation’s (UK) political out-manoeuvring of its ally (US) in order to forge consensus. A campaign designed not only to shape events with a view to facilitating the next step in a much more elaborate military and indeed logistical strategy, but one designed to serve its own ambitious and far reaching political goals too. A campaign in which the enemy, operating within his own dysfunctional alliance, sought to predict Allied moves through a miasma of disruptive misinformation efforts, and its own competing ideas about how the threat to Sicily should be managed within a much wider series of political, military and economic considerations, stretching to the Eastern Front and the Balkans. A campaign in which the senior Allied commander, operating in an often fractious coalition environment sought to inflict defeat upon the enemy whilst coping not only with potentially destructive subordinates focussed upon their own personal and national agendas but also a lack of precise instruction as to what his ultimate goal should be. A campaign in which the three services fought in concert through a fog of doctrinal, organisational and conceptual uncertainty, with inevitable consequences, and furthermore a campaign that sought battle upon the most inhospitable terrain, an eternal consideration for land forces in particular and which in this case saw the combat power of the huge armies involved quickly canalized and diluted And lastly, for those who might argue that the future is more about complex stabilisation operations than full-on warfighting, it was a campaign that required advancing forces to administer and safeguard the 4 million civilians liberated from Fascist rule. A task made all the more difficult by lack of basic resources, unfamiliarity with Sicily’s societal structures, and the predatory activities of deeply entrenched organised criminal gangs who, after their earlier suppression at the hands of Mussolini’s regime, soon recovered their pre-eminent positions in local society.
Topographical map of Sicily
Those who believe therefore that modern military planners and commanders have nothing to draw from such examples are, in this author’s opinion, arguably mistaken. But to gain full benefit it does require that participants in any such exercise engage at the appropriate level, and for an organisation such as HQ ARRC, that is most definitely at the operational and strategic levels, focusing upon the aforementioned matters of judgement, decision-making, command relationships and the military/political interface. Tactical actions can still be hugely informative of course, particularly for land commanders, but they need to be looked at in terms of much broader debates. Examining 1st Canadian Division’s exploits in isolation, while remarkable in themselves, offers little food for thought beyond a wincing recognition of the difficulty of their tasks at the tactical level. Elevating one’s perspective upward, however, and you are left considering a range of insights regarding their training, command and staff work; broader operational level issues with regard to campaign management i.e. why exactly were they tasked with seizing such a challenging set of objectives in their very first action as a formation; and a series of insights as to the grander political motivations underpinning the Canadian Government’s choice to contribute forces to the European war effort. Alternatively, examining the unhindered withdrawal of axis forces through Sicily and across the Straits of Messina gives us a glimpse of a tactical mastermind at work in the person of General Hans Hube, but asks deeper and more penetrating questions as to the way in which the three allied services co-operated at the operational level, the personal perspectives underpinning the decisions made by component commanders, the counterfactual discussions of ‘how about…’ and ‘what if…’, and broader deliberations on the definition of success of this particular campaign in the context of a wider regional strategy and war effort overall.
Straits of Messina
But it’s not only perspective that matters too. It’s about mind-set. As stated, ARRC undertakes these exercises as part of its broader intellectual and professional training and development. In other words it uses the staff ride as a way of sharpening and honing its own thoughts and ideas about what the future might hold. And that’s about using history to inform, debate, and extrapolate, as evidenced by the comprehensive after action review that follows. It’s also about tone, which in this case is set by COMARRC and the evident value that they attach to the activity. That permeates throughout the attending group. It’s about inclusiveness; asking those present to contribute their thoughts and ideas in an atmosphere of support and collaboration for the benefit of all. And perhaps not as obvious as one might think, it’s also about timing. ARRC schedules its staff rides so that they precede subsequent exercises dealing with more contemporary threats. That is intentional. If a staff ride is to serve as a suitable tool for the furtherance of professional military understanding, judgement and education then it has to occur at the right time. Disengaging a staff ride from a continuum of educational or professional activity will most likely disengage the participants. At its worst this can transform a Staff Ride into a de-facto battlefield tour which if done well can be a useful educational tool but which, if not gripped effectively, can turn into a mindless saunter around some foreign countryside while doing one’s bit to contribute to the local night-time economy. That may be fun, certainly, and may in its own way be slightly educational, but it’s not a staff ride.
Image: Agira: 1st Cdn Div action, July 1943, all images property of the author.