The Actual Purpose of a Pistol, and Other Details

A nice video on British companies, a followup on Lindybeige’s earlier video on platoon, which I featured in the post What a Platoon Officer Actually Does.

But on the earlier video on platoons, there are some interesting and lengthy comments from David Rendall (I can’t link to comments, but it’s dated “2 months ago”, aka mid-September 2016.) A few quotations:

Up to the 1960s British Platoon Commanders usually carried pistols, but not for the obvious reason. It wasn’t a personal preference or sniper deception (officers have a nasty habit of pointing, looking and moving around far more than other soldiers and that movement gave them away long before their weapon choice). The pistol was next to useless on the battlefield if you wanted to hurt the enemy, its only purpose was very close range defence. The only people close enough to an officer for the pistol to be of value were his own men.

This is why officers had pistols – you can’t sleep with a rifle under your pillow, and a rifle is too big and cumbersome to dig in someones ribs when they’re misbehaving. General De La Billeire wrote of pulling his pistol on a solider in Korea who was refusing to move forward, Wing Commnader Bob Stanford Tuck wrote of pulling his pistol on a pilot who had bottled it during the Battle of Britain claiming engine trouble. I don’t think they were alone.

Regarding what a Platoon commander actually does – Orders arrive from on high to the battalion commander, he interprets these orders and issues a battle plan to achieve the stated objective. He briefs his Company commanders on his intentions who then re-interpet those orders and devise a plan to achieve their missions within bounds. The Company Commanders brief their platoon commanders on what they want to happen, and the Plt Cdrs re-interpret those orders to suit local conditions and limitations. They brief their section commanders on the fine details of how all the timing, planning, orders, intentions, missions, bounds, limitations, fire plan and resources will be used. The section commanders duly take notes, repeat what they’ve been ordered and then go back to their men, point out the way ahead and shout – its all F**ked up, just follow me!

The Hollywood device of wild charges and two second order groups is the only way one can illustrate the confusion of battle without frustrating the audience. Ive watched dozens of military made videos about issuing orders and the combat estimate process – almost unwatchable – only the threat of discipline kept our eyes open.

So I find myself disagreeing with your thesis, the platoon commander is in fact an apprentice position, and far from being a natural sized unit for the WWII or modern era, the platoon is one of two manoeuvre units that actually gets in the way – the other being the Battalion. Im limiting myself to the WWII experience as you have here, in modern COIN warfare the natural units are the section and the cabinet office with a hundred ranks and lawyers looking over the poor corporals shoulder.

Not much lawyers, in the Imperium power structure. It’s that “The Laws of War don’t apply to Imperial Forces” coupled with “The Emperor’s Word is Law” kind of thing.

Anyways, Rendall provides quite a number of insights that are useful for a Traveller, especially in regard to the colonial British Army, pre-World War I. In a follow-up post:

I am limiting myself to the early modern period, or the long 19th Century – 1776 to 1914. The Germans developed not only a nation in this period, but an armed force to banish the memories of Napoleon. It became known as the Prussian Model. A large levy or draught of conscripts, trained, disciplined and manoeuvred into action by professional career Feldwebels. The Feldwebels took their directions from Company commanders who were the first stage to exercise battlefield adaptation and planning. They took their instructions from very detailed plans handed down from a highly regarded General Staff. The ideal of every German officer was to work on the General Staff, the British army it was command of a battalion.

The British system developed away from the idea of continental warfare and reliance on conscripts. Outside the two big wars the British Army was really an imperial paramilitary force, gendarmes, not a major battleforce that supported the very culture of its parent country. The battalion was a family that could often serve on its own for years on end in the far off parts of the empire.

So, it isn’t the regiment that was key, but the battalion. (nods)

The US and Japanese Armies both followed the Prussian model (even down to the blue coats). Only the Commonwealth followed the British model. The French did their own thing – Prussian in size, Napoleonic in composition, French in discipline and energy.

Class played a huge part in how these countries developed their systems. The US Army has long idealised the classless, citizen army forming around a core of educated professionals. Up to the modern age, the transition from citizen to senior NCO to officer was almost seamless and an open path to a great many. In Japan the martial class stuck rigidly, some would say obscenely, to the Prussian model. Orders were not questioned.

In Turkey, Russia and Austria the armies had barely moved on from feudal times and both suffered as a result. So its very hard to compare like with like. They all had field units of roughly the same size, but the cultures were very different.

I wonder how “feudal times”, via serfs and plows, differ from “feudal technocratic times”, with inherited technical specialties, and how bot differ from “corporate feudalism” with entire families and clans tied to the corporation.

And finally, from yet another lengthy post:

Regarding the combat estimate vs mission oriented leadership, there are differences. Any decent Lance-Corporal or local section leader adapts his stance for the ground he can see, the information available and mission given. But he doesn’t have a say in why the hell he’s out there challenging the payoff between death and duty. An officer even a junior subaltern is trying to prove he’s the capable of the next rank up, which inevitably leads him to General rank where he does make the decisions that put huge numbers of men into fields with sharp pointy bits of metal to set about other similarly armed young chaps.

The German system was not about unquestioning obeyance of orders, its about the method of management. Feldwebels had far more to do with the application of force to the enemy than their British Plt Sgts. But they were both drawn from a distinct social class and while the Feldwebel was given direct control of his men, the British Plt Sgt was an avuncular administrator and counsellor to his young charge. Neither would dare question or bellyache to his social superiors.

A young British Lt will get no points for simply repeating the orders he’s been given, but likewise if he strays too far he;ll get the disapproving eye. I found it cloying yet supportive at the same time. Plans, missions and intentions develop in the British Army as they filter up and down the command levels. It offers a greater chance for young subalterns to show they’re paying attention, and keeps the Majors and Lt Colonels in the game. It can get very frustrating when huddles of officers keep gathering to talk it over and do a bit of pointing. But within the family atmosphere of a battalion (a good one with the right chemistry) it is very durable under pressure. Its resistant to friction as it never goes that fast in the first place and all the cogs are well lubricated with shared ambition and social form.

A good example are the TV films Tumbledown (Falklands) and Warriors (Bosnia). In it young lieutenants are openly interjecting with opinions as the Company Commander gives his orders. Lt Lawrence interrupts his Major using his first name and points out that they know whats in front of them, but don’t know whats next to them, as he is senior he feels he should take the right flank of the assault in preparation for that unknown. An NCO would never behave like that in the German or British Army. Lt Lawrence was thought to be behaving rather well – resilient, comfortable and thinking. In warriors the three Lts in the field simply take their mission brief and adapt it far beyond its intention and scope to accommodate what they think should be done. And get respectful nods from their commanders when they pull it off. This is all on the understanding that thinking for yourself and failing is simply beyond the pale.

You can get away with some massive shenanigans, if you make your superiors look good.

Which brings us back to the character of the platoon. The British model is in effect a mini-battalion. Within its confines the young sub is expected to show he can manage a company and then a full battalion. We abuse the combat estimate by trying to make it fit a social theatre rather than the ground. This I believe is a residual amateurishness that British Army Officers projected during the long 19th century. I was a corporal in the infantry and an officer in the armour. I wished I had been offered a third alternative, a warrant to really get to grips with my profession and stay within the confines of the visible battlefield.

The Prussian army with its superb staff work and eagerness to be considered professional formulated precise plans, mission statements and intentions, but left the field details to those who were going to conduct them. It puts huge responsibility on the shoulders of the planners who were the elite of their day.

The inherent flexibility of that system allows rapid seizure of opportunity and seems more efficient. I was always concerned that under sustained pressure when the orders and imagination at the top dries up, it could founder. Verdun is the best example, the German army had launched several well planned and executed offensives and despite loosing a staggering number of men up to late 1915, they failed to drive home the swift victory the national strategy demanded (even in the East). They had to go to extreme lengths to maintain the initiative, and the Ragnarok that spewed forth around Verdun, even at the time, looked like a petulant fit of violence. Almost an admission of failure.

One brings order to chaos by clear directives, the other by trying to make it a family outing where everyone has developed a sense of what is expected. One is industrial the other familial. Neither survived WWII intact, the British family was broken up with new drafts of citizens in uniform while the German industry simply ran out of resources.

So, avoid industrial-scale meatgrinders and everything will come out fine.

Despite the apparent flippancy of the above line, this is actually really good advice for platoon- and company-sized mercenary groups, which is what most PCs will command, and they should take it seriously. But I fear that most will be rather cavalier about it, certain that their tech will protect them.

And of course, their technology will protect them… until it doesn’t.

Which is when we discover that it doesn’t take a lot of modern conventional firepower to kill 30, 60, or 150 men, really really fast.

Addendum: Unfortunately, the Navy is no longer the only service which is dependent on technology: there is no real way to avoid this weakness now. So, the PCs had better understand the fall-back positions in case their tech fails.


About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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