Their writings were taken quite seriously

Monday, December 16th, 2019

In There Will Be War Volume II, Jerry Pournelle introduces “On the Shadow of a Phosphor Screen” with some thoughts on war-gaming:

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the US Department of Defense became interested in war games. These were highly complex affairs, typically conducted in three rooms laid out with one-way glass so that those in the “Control Room” could see into each of the two participant rooms. I was involved in several of those war games. In one series, it was my responsibility to try to inject the consequences of tactical air power into a ground forces engagement.

Eventually that series of games led to the creation of the 11th Air Assault Brigade; which became the Air Cavalry. Helicopter troops are now a mainstay of US (and Soviet) military forces.


Such games can be useful. For example: it is nearly impossible to simulate Fall Gelb (Operation Gold), the German breakthrough which brought about the Fall of France in 1940. Any rational analysis leads to a clean win by the Allies, who had a preponderance of armor, men, and supplies, and who were defeated only by a total lack of understanding. Thus, one might think, had gaming fanatics and the tools for simulations games existed in the 30’s, the course of the war would have been far different.


Lest one place too much faith in these analyses, it should be remembered that the intellectual tools leading to Blitzkrieg were developed by Captain B. H. Liddell Hart and General J. F. C. Fuller, both of His Majesty’s forces. Their writings were taken quite seriously — but alas, only by the Germans.


  1. Jacob G. says:

    Because of course Germans are incapable of thinking up anything for themselves. So obviously they had to have copied British theorists – just ask those theorists – they will tell you ad nauseum.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    J.F.C. Fuller spent those years of 1939 and 1940 in a detention center. Such was the thought he had pronounced fascist sympathies.

    War games such as the Fletcher Pratt naval simulation were used to determine the forces needed to counter and defeat the Graf Spee.

  3. Kirk says:

    Yeah, see… The main point here with regards to “de Churmans” isn’t that they weren’t the originators of the ideas, it’s that they were the only ones with the flexibility and open minds to accept what was being said by others, and then smart enough to put those ideas into effect in their own armies.

    Goes back to the WWI experience with infiltration tactics and light infantry; the French are the ones who came up with the initial idea, in the form of a pamphlet a young Captain wrote up, but which was ignored by the French hierarchy. Said pamphlet was captured by the Germans, examined, compared to current German thinking on the same matters, and then copied and put into effect in the German ranks.

    Everyone has this template of “Rigid Prussian Hierarchy” that they overlay over everything that the Germans did, but the reality…? Totally different, once you get into the weeds. The vast majority of it all stems solely from outsiders looking in at German culture, and observing things that did not actually exist.

    It was only in the German Army that there existed the flexibility of mind to accept ideas and concepts from beneath the masters at the top of things; in the French Army, if you were not a graduate of one of the grande escoles, your ideas had little hope of permeating through the ossified hierarchy. Same with the Brits–Most of the things that Guderian did were originally British ideas, but the fact is that those ideas had gone nowhere under the stultifying management of the Colonel Blimp caricatures who were running the British Army at the time. There was nothing stopping the British from fielding a force capable of performing the vaunted Blitzkrieg themselves–Except, themselves. Not enough of the British Army had the flexibility of mind to operate like that, and the ones who did were not in command. Same with the French, the Soviets, and the US.

    The sad fact is that, based on resources available, the Germans should never have been able to do what they did. That they got as far as they managed to isn’t an encomium for the Germans, it’s a condemnation of the Allies. The only reason the Germans did as well as they did was down to one thing, and one thing only: Our incompetence. Sad truth is, most of what the Germans made use of to defeat us came right out of the books of our own theorists–It was just that the only people who listened to those theorists and then put their ideas into action were Germans.

  4. Paul from Canada says:

    General De Puy (I know, I know, lots of people don’t like him and disagree with him), stated that from ops research done at the end of WWII, one German soldier was worth something like twenty Russians, five Americans and four Commonwealth. I may be mis-remembering the numbers, but they were something like that.

    The reason was flexibility. By the end of the war, it was not training and professionalism alone, since the rank and file were mostly hastily trained conscripts. What made them so good was the flexibility to be able to re-arrange organizations over the short term, and the “mission order” concept.

    Since everyone knew the commander’s aim, if things went wrong, they still knew what the aim was and were instructed to do what they could to further it. So a squad who were in the wrong place, and lost their leader would still try to do SOMETHING.

    “We are in the wrong place and can’t contribute, but up ahead is a crossroads that is on the flank of our attack. If we occupy it, we can at least delay any flank attack against our main line of advance” and so on. Allied troops (for the most part, there were obviously exceptions), in the same situation, consolidated where they were and waited for new leaders and orders.

    The Germans were also willing to ignore the usual org chart and precedence where necessary. They excelled at putting together scratch units of leftovers (“Kampfgruppen”). A platoon of tanks separated from their unit, the survivors of an infantry company, otherwise combat ineffective, a sapper squad hijacked on their way back from a demolition task, a trainload of mixed troops coming back from leave and so on.

    The commander would be whichever sub-unit commander higher though most suitable, so in a hasty defense, the engineer officer could be in charge rather than the infantry or tank officer, who may even out-rank him and it usually worked well.

    The shortcoming was usually logistical, for example, where the stray tank platoon had Tigers, and was borrowed by a division employing Stuggs and MKIVs, so only had 75mm ammo for re-sup. On the other hand, it allowed the Germans to sustain rearguard actions for far longer than would seem reasonable to their opponents.

    Interesting that even within the British system, there were differences. In WWI, the best Commonwealth troops and the best Generals of the war were colonials. The “Colonel Blimps” did exist, but even more so, was the culture. Even the smart ones found it hard to buck the social atmosphere and culture. Those who left for the colonies tended to be a different sort.

    Canadian and Australian troops had a reputation for ill-discipline (Australians), and a sky high VD rate (Canadians), but were considered the best troops. The best generals were generally said to be Currie and Monash.

    Currie particularly, brought in the idea of mass briefing everyone, with models of the ground, and he meant everybody, all the soldiers not just the officers, so that in the pre-radio chaos, everyone knew what the objective was.

  5. Kirk says:

    The answers for why the Germans were so effective boil down to the nature of the institution they built, and the men making it up.

    Everyone says “Prussian model”, and they think “Kadavergehorsamkeit”, which was something the Prussians never really espoused, and had entirely given up by the time of the Humboldt brothers. You go look at the actual antecedents to this supposed “Prussian rigidity”, and what you find are men like Wilhelm von Humboldt. Then, you read what the man wrote, and you’re left with an awful lot of confusion about where the hell all this “rigid militarism” supposedly resided:

    Humboldt wrote to the Prussian king the following, in a letter:

    “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without. People obviously cannot be good craftworkers, merchants, soldiers or businessmen unless, regardless of their occupation, they are good, upstanding and – according to their condition – well-informed human beings and citizens. If this basis is laid through schooling, vocational skills are easily acquired later on, and a person is always free to move from one occupation to another, as so often happens in life.”

    Does that sound like someone advocating for a lockstep system of rigidly bound men and women, or does it sound more like something you’d think came from a more “liberal” country?

    Great Britain at the time was locked into a class-based system–You didn’t have the lower orders pushing up ideas into the upper ones. In Germany, by contrast, you had a hell of a lot more “information permeability” in the hierarchy, and if something worked, then it worked–Nobody cared where the idea came from. This is why the German economy was eating the British Empire alive, from the inside–There was more low-level smart guys able to effect things, and the guys on the factory floor got listened to.

    Even today, a lot of British industry is crippled by the class system–I had a friend who worked at Dyson, and he was involved in production there in the UK. The way he tells it, the root problem was that there was precisely zero communication going on between factory floor and the higher levels–It was all stopped dead by the jobsworthies in middle management. Things got so bad that eventually Dyson moved production out to Singapore. They had no damn choice–The culture was locked up, ossified, frozen. When the Japanese came in to build their car plants, what they found was that the work force was just fine, the problems were in the management. Once Japanese management took over, the same workers who’d bankrupted British Leyland and the Rover Group turned out perfectly adequate products.

    The same syndrome exists in the US Army, to a somewhat lesser degree. The information flows top-down, and nothing goes back up to any real effect. It takes external pressure to cause the upper hierarchy layers to even pay attention to the problems at the coal face, and nine times out of ten, they then implement the wrong fix.

    In the German system of yore, that was not what generally happened. Examine the career of one Captain Willy Rohr, for an example.

    The Germans were not absolute paragons of this sort of thing, and were not the “ultimate learning organization”, by any means. But, key point to be made, they were better at it than everyone else they fought. They went into Poland with half-completed doctrine, and in the course of a few months after the victory, re-forged the Heer into a force that could take France down in a few short weeks, like a pack of lions on a wounded buffalo.

    The flexibility and the clarity of vision to grasp that things need to be done differently is why the Germans were able to do what they did. The Allies were far more inflexible and less open to the talents; they stuck with ideas that didn’t work until they had no choice but to change. Especially the French, who didn’t really change their initial operating concepts until their armies mutinied under the pressure of senseless casualties and a complete disdain for their front-line conditions. It’s not accidental that the French had the most poorly constructed and unsanitary trenches of all the combatants, including even the feckless Italians.

  6. Ezra says:

    120 Americans or 120 Englishmen to beat 100 Germans and 260 Russians to beat 100 Germans. But only at the brigade level or higher.

    Lots of the data Dupuy [a Colonel] used was based on the Italian campaign from WW2. Good German units commanded by good German commanders. German troops fighting basically a defensive war from prepared positions. Defense easier to do. You can achieve more with less and easier.

  7. David Foster says:

    The deposed Kaiser had some interesting thoughts on comparative national character:

    “Another thing that struck me, in addition to the one-sidedness of the education in the schools, was the tendency, among youths planning their careers in those days, to turn their attention to becoming Government officials, and always consider the profession of lawyer or judge the most worthy goal…As long as the state consisted, so to speak, of government and administration, this tendency among German youths in the shaping of their lives was understandable and justified; since we were living in a country of officials, the right road for a young man to select was the service of the state. British youths of that time, self-reliant and made robust by sports, were already talking, to be sure, of colonial conquests, of expeditions to explore new regions of the earth, of extending British commerce; and they were trying, in the guise of pioneers of their country, to make Great Britain still stronger and greater, by practical, free action, not as paid hirelings of the state.”


    “To be sure, there were even then enterprising men in Germany—brilliant names can be cited among them—but the conception of serving the fatherland, not by traveling along a definite, officially certified road, but by independent competition, had not yet become sufficiently generalized. Therefore I held up the English as an example, for it seems to me better to take the good where one finds it, without prejudice, than to go through the world wearing blinkers.”

    These comments echo some earlier observations by Goethe, who was speaking about the reasons German girls, in his experience, tended to prefer British men:

  8. Kirk says:

    David Foster,

    I’m not sure I’d take Kaiser Wilhelm as an authority on much of anything, to be quite honest. His circle of acquaintances from whom he would build such an opinion were naturally more limited, and more likely to show such a thing.

    You have to look at the broad swathe with these things. Overall, the Germans were better at taking up new ideas and transmitting them upwards, then spreading them out. Another case in point: at the beginning of the war, the Germans had more machine guns and used them far more effectively. Why? Because there were no reactionary jackasses at the higher levels who poo-pooed the ideas of their adherents.

    A large reason the Germans did as well as they did in WWI boils down to having better trained and more reserves than the other nations. German reservists represented a trained manpower pool that they could draw on for NCO and officer cadre, and it was a better educated one in nearly all respects.

  9. David Foster says:


    True, Wilhelm’s circle was inherently limited (and even within that, there were people who didn’t fit the bureaucratic profile of which he was complaining: the shipowner Albert Ballin and the corporate leader Walter Rathenau, for example)

    It’s interesting, though, that Goethe prefigured his analysis in his comments about why the local girls preferred the Brits:

    “The secret does not lie in these things, my good friend,” returned Goethe (to Eckermann). ““Neither does it lie in birth and riches; it lies in the courage which they have to be that for which nature has made them. There is nothing vitiated or spoilt about them, there is nothing halfway or crooked; but such as they are, they are thoroughly complete men. That they are also sometimes complete fools, I allow with all my heart; but that is still something, and has still always some weight in the scale of nature.”

    Goethe goes on to contrast the upbringing of English boys with that typical in his own country:

    “In our own dear Weimar, I need only look out of the window to discover how matters stand with us. Lately, when the snow was lying upon the ground, and my neighbour’s children were trying their little sledges in the street, the police was immediately at hand, and I saw the poor little things fly as quickly as they could. Now, when the spring sun tempts them from the houses, and they would like to play with their companions before the door, I see them always constrained, as if they were not safe, and feared the approach of some despot of the police. Not a boy may crack a whip, or sing or shout; the police is immediately at hand to forbid it. This has the effect with us all of taming youth prematurely, and of driving out all originality and all wildness, so that in the end nothing remains but the Philistine.

    An interesting remark, given the increasing constraints on childhood in our own present culture.

    Goethe continues:

    “Thus, for instance, I cannot approve the requisition, in the studies of future statesmen, of so much theoretically-learned knowledge, by which young people are ruined before their time, both in mind and body. When they enter into practical service, they possess, indeed, an immense stock of philosophical and learned matters; but in the narrow circle of their calling, this cannot be practically applied, and must therefore be forgotten as useless. On the other hand, what they most needed they have lost; they are deficient in the necessary mental and bodily energy, which is quite indispensable when one would enter properly into practical life. “And then, are not love and benevolence also needed in the life of a statesman,—in the management of men? And how can any one feel and exercise benevolence towards another, when he is ill at ease with himself?”

    Goethe’s patron and close friend was Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and Goethe served as his advisor for many years…I wonder if he ever spoke to the Duke about excessive police harassment of young sledders and whip-crackers?

  10. Kirk says:


    Two thoughts for you, in regards to this. One, the girls always go for the exotic. It was always thus–The English accent is always a sure panty-dropper abroad, and essentially useless at home. Same thing happens when Americans show up in a British pub, or an Aussie one.

    Granted, when you’re “familiarly exotic”, as in “US Army in Germany…”, you’re not often going to find this at all effective. But… Hie thyself off to Munsterlager, where the local German girls are used to the Brits, and the shoe is on the other foot, entirely. Vice-versa, as well–The German guys down at Fort Bliss who were going through training with the Luftwaffe air defense element used to wreak havoc among the local females, even the GI females.

    In short, you can’t extrapolate much, using female exogamy and hypergamy as evidence. The girls are gonna do what the girls are gonna do, and their genes are screaming for the “strange”.

    As well, Goethe is one of those guys I class with Voltaire and Rousseau, a theorist with way more influence than he should have had. The amount of sheer “WTF?” I’ve found in his work leads me to wonder just how much damage he did to things, overall. The man often confused cause with effect, and it just doesn’t strike me as an occasional thing, in his writing.

    With Goethe, I often find myself going “Uhm… No. Just no…”. With either of the Humboldt brothers, I’ve yet to find a false note, one that I could take issue with.

    Of course, the question is, which was more influential with the Germans? Goethe and his ilk, or the von Humboldt school? At this remove, and separated from that culture, it’s rather hard to tell, but I think that there is rather more of Humboldt to be built upon.

    I do agree with what Goethe is saying here about the “control freak” aspect of German culture. They’re a strange people, in that regard–Sometimes entirely compliant and rigidly obedient, and at others, madmen who brook no rules whatsoever. It’s valuable to observe the German at work, and at play–Fasching was illuminating, where I was stationed in Hesse. Most of the year, the locals were seriously dour bastards, seemingly wandering around with a 2X4 jammed up their backsides. During Fasching? Oh. My. Gawd. The madness season… I got to know some folks from outside the military community there, and to spend time with them downtown was illuminating. During most of the year, those folks were uptight burghers. Come Fasching, and you had a hard time recognizing them at all. It was like someone turned a switch from “on” to “off”, with regards to their inhibitions.

    To a degree, though, I’m not really too confident that you can really know another culture from either the inside or the outside–You almost have to have both viewpoints, and since that whole thing is essentially binary, well… There you go. You’re not ever going to be able to look at your own home culture from an outside perspective, and trying to get the inside perspective ain’t bloody likely, either. There are truths that only insiders know, and others that are only apparent to an outside viewpoint.

    The German will never agree with you that they’re authority-mad, and live under conditions that would cause mass riot in other countries–But, that’s a ground truth. Merkel would be in serious trouble by now, were she a politician in the US. In Germany, it’s taken years for any real disagreement about her policies to come out, and most Germans are reticent to even discuss the things they disagree with her over. But, sit them down, take them out of a German context? There’s a storm brewing for Merkel-land.

    I think the EU and the current lot of leadership in both Germany and France are in for a huge shock, coming down the road. Everything is stable, everything is fine… Right up until it isn’t. I think we’ve got an 1848 or a 1968 coming somewhere in the near-term future.

  11. CVLR says:


    Interesting that even within the British system, there were differences. In WWI, the best Commonwealth troops and the best Generals of the war were colonials. The “Colonel Blimps” did exist, but even more so, was the culture. Even the smart ones found it hard to buck the social atmosphere and culture. Those who left for the colonies tended to be a different sort.

  12. Jacob G. says:

    “infiltration tactics and light infantry; the French are the ones who came up with the initial idea, in the form of a pamphlet a young Captain wrote up, but which was ignored by the French hierarchy. Said pamphlet was captured by the Germans, examined, compared to current German thinking on the same matters, and then copied and put into effect in the German ranks.”

    Nonsense. Rohrs special units were already in operation and he had already been given the directive to start training the wider army when the pamphlet was translated in 1916. In any case there are substantial differences in the pamphlet and what the Germans did, and I should mention even between what Rohr came up with and what was used in the Michael offensive. Brusilov seems like a much bigger influence than anything percolating in French and British circles.

    Still I agree with your wider point. I have no doubt that there were French and British who had ideas along these lines but they were never given a chance. But if you are arguing that Germans are incapable of inventing anything, therefore it had to be entirely the pamphlet, I’m speechless. All it takes is one counterexample to disprove that idea. Is there not something that was clearly and indisputably invented by Germans?

    As for dupuy, I think he initially said that German troop numbers were worth 1.5x allied and 4 times that of Russians. He later revised that to 1.2x as many allied troops saying he had neglected to properly account for the fact that smaller formations utilized their strength more effectively (and maybe that he had not properly weighted the advantage of being on the defensive?).
    I expect he also failed to account that the losing side in a battle would use more of their strength because they would more often have thrown in their reserves more and earlier.

    I also remembered he was quite emphatic that a number of US divisions had better scores than the German army, and the 88 I.D. in particular was way better.
    I don’t know if he accounted for the statistical bias that can occur when comparing small to larger things in this way, that more recently led Bill Gates Foundation into thinking small schools were superior to large schools.

  13. Kirk says:

    Jacob, you’re not getting the point I’m making by tracing out that pamphlet by Laffargue; it’s not that the Germans copied it, it’s that on the one hand the French had the same sort of idea percolating up from beneath, and ignored it–While the Germans implemented it.

    Although, re-reading what I wrote, I don’t do a very good job of laying that out. I suspect, were we able to check on these things, and were anyone actually interested in doing the scholarship, that rather more influence on the Germans welled up out of the Jagers than anything else.

    The key point here, though, is the institutional flexibility and openness to new ideas. Not to mention, the flip side to that–The clarity of view to see that things that they were already doing weren’t working. Germans had that; French? Nope. British? Arguably, they eventually got it down, but there was a failure to institutionalize it, internalize and digest the information, and then put it to effective use in the next war. Where the Germans fielded a truly “next generation” force in ’39, the British had reverted to sort of a “product improved” 1917 force, one that would have to make another step up to even match that which they’d had for the planned 1919 campaign. The French merely slapped an overlay of modern equipment over the old system, and had their asses handed to them in some six weeks.

    Nearly all the combatants had people who saw things clearly, and who came up with solutions for the tactical/operational “lock conditions” they found themselves in. The difference was, the Germans were the ones who allowed those ideas to well up from the “user base”, as it were, and to permeate the force. They also were really the only ones to actually pay attention to how things had changed–German infantry tactics in WWII were a direct growth out of the Sturmtruppen, and by the end of that war, nearly everyone had emulated them.

    So, the key thing I’m getting at is that the French had Laffargue and ignored him. The Germans incorporated him, taking in ideas from an outsider while integrating them with their own. That is a huge difference in culture and outlook, and one which puts paid to the idea of “Prussian rigidity”. Reality is, the French and Germans were a lot more prone to that sort of thing than the Germans, who emphasized initiative and adaptability.

    And, the Germans could do that precisely because they’d had the depth of trained manpower and an educated population to draw on. German conscripts from before the war had received much more advanced training, and their reserve system kept them in better readiness than the French, who were haphazard at best with it all. The British forces didn’t have much to work with, once the pre-WWI Regulars were gone, and it took a long time to get their wartime conscripts up to speed. Had the British had a German-style reserve built up, their war would have been a lot less painful, and probably wouldn’t have killed so many men.

  14. Lucklucky says:

    I think your former post was understandable, Kirk.

    What is surprising is that the Germans had instead a quite mixed approach to hardware, often getting into over engineering, and sometimes too stubborn to change — Me 110/210/410 for example.

    One example of a technology that existed way before the war butwas employed only late in the war is the snorkel for diesel submarines. But its usefulness did not exist conceptually in the minds of the admirals of any nation.

  15. Kirk says:

    The Germans weren’t paragons of common sense with regards to a lot of things, once the Nazis took over with their nutty ideas on “Fuhrerprinzip“. That whole concept is so counter to reality that it could only have come out of an Austrian…

    The majority of the things I admire about the German Army came out of the Imperial forces, and von Seeckt’s interwar force. The Nazis were dogmatic and inflexible, in a lot of ways, and very much a force that was top-down driven in some very important ways. Had Hitler and his minions had the time, they’d have turned the Wehrmacht over into a caricature of its former self, and no doubt have reduced their efficiency and effectiveness to the point where it wouldn’t have been the same force at all. Some of the Nazis were pragmatic sorts; more were idiots with ideas that didn’t work, and who would brook no argument about implementing them. Unfortunately, the residual carry-overs from Imperial times and von Seeckt were enough to make the Germans better than their opponents, for a short window of time.

  16. Sam J. says:

    “…the French had the same sort of idea percolating up from beneath, and ignored it–While the Germans implemented it….

    …The key point here, though, is the institutional flexibility and openness to new ideas…”

    Probably the only reason they did this was they got beat in WWI. If they had won I bet nothing would have changed.

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