The New Strategy-Nature of this War


By BRIGADIER G. K. BOURNE, British Joint Staff Mission, Washington, D. C.

Delivered before the Institute of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., July 8, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 688-692.

BEFORE we examine the strategy with which to win the war, it will be as well to examine its nature. First of all it is a war of ideals just as much as it is a war to gain territory and power. Here the enemy has so far had the advantage because his ideals are warlike whereas ours are essentially peaceful. As in the field of weapons and arms we consequently have a great leeway to make up; it is an essential truth that only when we can inculcate our own populations with a white-heat enthusiasm for our cause can we hope to beat opponents whose very children are raised on a warlike creed.

I mention this idealistic side of the struggle because it has a direct bearing on our strategy and one which is apt sometimes to lead to criticism of Britain's conduct of the war. If you are fighting an aggressor you cannot weigh up purely military factors and say we will support this ally because we shall gain strategically, and we will not support that one because it will be a waste of military effort. We wereforced to try to succour Norway, although it was a hopeless military proposition if we were to allow the Germans to have even a small start; we had to put our army alongside the French, and politically it was extremely difficult to refuse to advance to the help of Belgium. In all these cases we lost valuable military positions and we lost the equipment of a complete army, leaving us desperately short for our own self-defense and giving the Germans a tremendous advantage in the range to vital targets in the bombing campaign which was to follow. The only instance so far of real strategic gain through following this idealistic war policy has been when we went to the assistance of the gallant Greeks. The odds were against us—were desperately against us—but politically it was essential to spare land and air forces, even at damaging cost to our further advance in Libya. Though the retreat through Greece and our defeat at Crete look like further steps on our downhill path, yet they probably postponed Hitler's attack on Russia by about six weeks, thus giving the Red Army more of that priceless war commodity, that is to say TIME. Who knows but that this may not have been the turning point of this German war?

This is not the first really world-wide war. The Napoleonic wars had their outlying campaigns and naval actions as far abroad as the West Indies and the Indian Ocean; but it is the first time that really weighty opponents have been engaged in all quarters of the globe. This war has the same dual quality as the Seven Years War did in that it falls into two distinct parts—a continental campaign and an ocean campaign. We, the British, are accustomed to this type of war in which, perforce, we must employ our main strength on the seas in order to preserve our very existence, and at the same time provide all the assistance we can to our continental allies. It is as well to remember that British participation on the Continent has not always taken the form of a large army and that in keeping up the blockade of Europe, in the increasingly heavy bombing of German industry and morale, and in sending large quantities of munitions to Russia we are achieving great assistance by proved traditional methods. We have never had the power to gain quick decisions on the Continent, and Britain has never entered a war without realizing that it will probably last many years. How do these historic methods apply to the United States requirements and, more importantly, how do they apply to a combined British-American strategy?

The outstanding feature of this war since December 7, 1941, so far as the United States and Great Britain are concerned, is that it is a five-navy war. This is not the first time that you have successfully fought a naval war but never before have yours and our sea communications been so seriously threatened.

The Aims of Strategy

The final military aims must be as Clausewitz put it, first to destroy the enemy's armed forces, second to get possession of the material elements of aggression, i.e., his raw materials and industry, and thirdly to gain public opinion. This may be interpreted as overcoming his will to resist. And we may note in passing, that in Clausewitz's view the last aim is ultimately gained by great victories and usually by possession of the enemy's capital—which reminds us of our mistake at the end of the last war and of which Hitler is not guilty.

Strategy can be described as the means by which we achieve the political war aims which are laid down by the heads of our governments. It is a great advantage when the political head and the active military head of a nation are one and the same man, as in the case of Frederick the Great, Napoleon and now Hitler. Great democracies, like our own, cannot have this advantage, though they sometimes approachit, and must devise the next best thing—an efficient Chiefs of Staff system. Now that modern war is a truly national affair in the sense that every man and woman and all industrial economic resources are as fully engaged as the purely military forces, then the Chiefs of Staff organization, in forming its strategic plans must take full account of all these factors. It is largely for this reason that the staff systems in Washington and London are so large, and possibly to an outsider they may appear cumbersome. But modern war embraces practically every facet of national life and the strategical directors must have expert advice on all of them. Economic warfare, for example, was brought to a pitch of great efficiency by us in 1914-18, and it played a great part in the final victory. Today, when our sources of raw materials have in some cases been occupied by the enemy it is even more important.

It is the aim of strategy to win a war with as little actual fighting as possible. Hitler has followed this theory to its logical conclusion by so working on the morale of his opponents before attacking them as to make each campaign a rapid certainty from the start. Lenin put it another way when he said that "the soundest strategy in war is to postpone operations until the moral disintegration of the enemy renders the delivery of the mortal blow both possible and easy." We have seen this theory most thoroughly put into practice by Hitler against his successive opponents in this war; concluding with the classic example of France, when his Fifth Column and his preparatory subversive treatment of French bureaucracy quickly nullified the will to resist of the French Army. In fact his only failure so far in a land campaign has been against the Russians, who were at great pains to eliminate their own Fifth Column in their regular purges before the war. We may justifiably hope that from this date began his certain fall. From these modern examples, it is clear that the Germans definitely direct their attacks against our morale. Is there a lesson for us in all this? Is the reply to this blitzkrieg war, with its preliminary softening process another blitzkrieg on our part? Or is this method merely suitable to the aggressor? A brief survey of the more important strategical and technical factors in this new war should help us to find an answer.

Effect of Modern Weapons

The two new great weapons in war are the aeroplane and the tank. These, though they were both employed in the last war, did not greatly affect its strategy. This time, however, they have altered the very nature of the campaigns and consequently our strategic methods. On land they bought back that mobility and that rapid manoeuvre which was a characteristic of the Napoleonic and, most strikingly of your own Civil War, campaigns and which was lost in the static war of trench lines and masses of men in 1914-18. These two new weapons, as now employed, have restored for a period at any rate, the mastery of the offensive over the defensive on land. The Germans overcame the Low Countries and France at a mean speed of 25 miles per day, and in Russia, during the first month they averaged some 20 miles per day. This was by the use of highly trained mechanized formations supported by concentrated air power, both of which the United States and Great Britain will have in abundance before long. As your General Eisenhower is reported to have said: "When Hitler put his army on wheels, he drove right up our alley." It is up to your new army, the descendants of Jackson and Sherman, to prove him right.

At sea, on the contrary, the increasing range and power of aircraft has already reduced the inherent mobility and independent power of the navies. In narrow waters such as the Mediterranean and the North Sea the moves of battlefleets are definitely governed by the balance of shore-based air power. The Italian fleet needed no aircraft carrier and we have only been forced to use them in that area because we have lacked air bases on the North African shore. Basically, aircraft carried in ships cannot have the same performance and fighting value as the corresponding shore-based types; so that a carrier-borne air attack against a land objective can rarely succeed without overwhelming strength and surprise. When the defence is on the alert, as in the aircraft carrier raid on Ceylon and in the offensive operations against Midway, not only are poor results obtained, but the effort is likely to prove an expensive one. The Japanese were the first to employ this method, and as the range and performance of land-based aircraft is improved so will this particular type of operations become less successful and more infrequent.

The Sea War

Both our main opponents are fighting outwards and thus putting the United Nations on exterior lines—a form of strategic warfare which is invariably expensive and slow, because it involves amassing greater reserves of force, and the traversing of great distances in order to concentrate superior power at the critical point.

To deal first with the war on the seas. Twenty-five years ago our navy gained its strategic mobility through a series of defended ports, chiefly strung out along the Mediterranean—Suez—Indian Ocean—Far East route. At only one point, and that was the Suez Canal, was this vital British life line threatened by land or sea attack. Moreover, the requirements of a naval base in those days were simply a combination of a good harbour, strong coast defences and a sufficient field army to hold the beaches against landing attack. This time, however, no naval base is secure without a strong supporting air force and this itself postulates an area sufficient to contain several air fields. This war has given us a good example of what I mean. Our main fleet base at Alexandria requires a whole army and air force to defend it. The old type of naval base, such as Malta, Gibraltar, and Hong Kong suffer severely from the new requirements and were not, in fact, useable for main fleets in the face of air attack at short range. The net result has been to force battle fleets into main bases from which they can control the oceans as opposed to the narrow seas, and to force shipping routes further into mid-ocean with a consequent increased load on our mercantile marine.

Japan has, by a strong combination of land, sea, and air warfare, advanced her frontiers to include every raw material which she needs except wool. Militarily, she has secured herself for the time being at any rate from serious attack from all quarters except Siberia. There are strong arguments for her not advancing further south against Australia and New Zealand or west against India until she has eliminated this one danger spot. Whether she does this or not we are faced with formidable problems of space and time in our offensive against Japan. Your professional soldiers and sailors have necessarily planned for this very war for years past and we can trust them to take full advantage of great future superiority in the air. But it is essentially a sea campaign and history shows that quick results are not normally obtained in this type of warfare. The Spaniards were not forced to sue for peace until years after the defeat of their Armada off the English coast and Napoleon was not finally defeated until ten years after the sea decision was obtained at Trafalgar. Similarly, the Germans continued the last world war, indeed almost achieved a decision on land, one year after the Battle of Jutland which retired her main fleet permanently to harbour.

Japan, however, is more vulnerable. She is an island empire like the British Isles, and as such has to rely for her very existence on secure sea communications to her sources 1 of war materials. Thus, like Britain, with her fleet defeated, she would be forced to sue for peace almost immediately. It is a question, therefore, of forcing her fleet into action and not necessarily engaging a surface action between battle squadrons. The increasing effectiveness of air bombing attack and particularly of its long range power is the most promising factor for a reasonably quick decision in the Pacific war. Until American bomber forces can be placed within operating distance of the Japanese main fleet bases you will probably only get within striking distance of their main fleet when the Japanese Command either decide to risk it or make a major blunder—as avoiding action in this vast area is a simple matter.

More probably, therefore, it will be a war of attrition in which, by the same co-ordinated junction of amphibious actions supported by air, you will cut off Japan's more extended sea routes, such as the route to the oil of Borneo and Sumatra and to the rubber of Malaya. We shall gain air bases from which to narrow down the Japanese controlled sea areas.

Unless the Japanese play into your hands by allowing a decisive fleet action to take place we are most likely to have a naval war of position in which, step by step, the Pacific and British fleets will seize air bases from which to operate effectively against Japanese sea communications. We have learned a lot about this type of naval warfare from the Japanese themselves. Their conduct of the attack South of the Philippines and through Malaya, Sumatra, and Java was quite masterly in the combining of its assaulting convoys with the supporting movements of its shore based bombers and fighters, so that at no time was the fleet or its convoys ever without effective air cover. With the Japanese fleet at roughly equal battle strength, and after their losses in the Coral Sea and off Midway and with our increasing aircraft carrier superiority, supported by land based bombers, we can look forward to reversing the balance of power before long. The Japanese Army is only trained for offensive warfare and once we have seized the initiative in this theatre of war, it will be most interesting to observe how the qualities of their armed forces, after their recent glut of successes, will stand up to what they are going to have to face.

I have called this a five-navy war, but it could also be called a merchant fleet war as it is upon this that not only our lives and ability to make war rests, but also the power to transport our attacking forces to the desired places. When we pass to the offensive, our methods and plan of attack will be governed very much by the state of our merchant fleet. Already a large part of our tonnage is employed in military movements and maintenance for the purely defensive campaigns now being waged in the various theatres. When we choose the theatre for our main offensive or second front, as it is commonly called, and if time is the same vital consideration as it was in Napoleon's view, then our choice must obviously be influenced by the length of the shipping run from our main bases. The other normal military factors, such as the disposition of the enemy forces, the nature of the coastline and the need for overwhelming air superiority will play their part, but until the American merchant marine is expanded very greatly indeed this shipping factor will probably outweigh all others.

The Land War

On land Germany has pushed outwards to the western seaboard of Europe so that the submarine menace has gained additional range and so that our shipping lanes near the British Isles and across the Bay of Biscay can be threatened by long range air attack. She is now desperately trying topush southwards and eastwards to the oil of the Caucasus and Iraq and the cotton of Egypt, without which she cannot hope to fight a really long war. In past times Egypt and the Middle East were the vital British link on our route to the Far East. In this new situation this area is more to be regarded as a support to the Russian southern flank and as the most important section of our blockade of Europe.

No military offensive is sound unless it is launched from a firm and secure base. People are apt to forget this and to maintain that an offensive must succeed just because it is an offensive and forget the need for covering up our soft spots.

The people who cry for a second front in Western Europe will be wise to remember one or two things. Firstly, the permanent invasion of the European coastline is unprecedented. History may be a dangerous guide but all previous British or American campaigns on the Continent have been based on the use of a friendly port, whether it was Calais— which actually belonged to England—or ports such as Boulogne and Le Havre and Bordeaux, which were put at our disposal by the French in the last war. The last time that we actually attacked and occupied French territory, so far as I remember, was at Cherbourg and St. Malo in the Seven Years War; we were then carrying out a series of commando-type raids with the object of creating a diversion in France so as to keep French forces from moving against Frederick the Great and our own Duke of Cumberland. In this limited role we undoubtedly succeeded, but is was definitely not an invasion. Incidentally, we often employed the Grenadier Guards and Foot Regiments of the Line in those days, so that we have traditional precedent in our army for this very type of operation.

Secondly, we should remember that the German army, with an air force which had already been sufficiently strong to obliterate the French air force did not attempt an invasion of England, even at a moment when we were so very weak. In other words, Hitler was not prepared to carry out the second stage of his blitzkrieg against England because he judged, and judged correctly, that the softening process of the first phase, which combined air attack and probably some Fifth Column work, had not sufficiently prepared the way. We shall refuse to be ruled by historic precedent and are determined to find new methods for the final offensive. Instead of looking for the difficulties and dangers rather should we be exhorted by the words of our General Wolfe, who, after an unsuccessful landing operation at Rochefort in 1757 said: "Nothing is to be reckoned an obstacle to an undertaking of this nature which is not found to be so on trial; in war something must be allowed to chance; the greatness of an objective should be under consideration as opposed to the impediment that lie in the way; the honour of one's country is of some weight; and in particular circumstances and times the loss of a thousand men is rather an advantage than otherwise, seeing that battles save its reputation, where contrary operations sink the credit of a country, ruin its troops and cause uneasiness and discontent at home."

War is, in fact, a question of taking risks. To show you that the British have not lost the spirit of Wolfe and have already in this war taken some very big risks, I would remind you that at the very time when we alone were facing the prospect of a German invasion, we actually sent overseas to the Middle East a complete armoured division from our very slender armoured resources. This risk was justified in effect, and that division played a prominent part in the Italian defeat in Libya shortly afterwards.

The Germans are admitted masters of the military art and though they take risks, they take calculated risks. It may well be that our method of attack on German-occupiedEurope should conform to Hitler's principles. In other words, we may be right in not plunging ahead into an un-calculated risk but rather beat Hitler at his own game in the preliminary phase; by softening process, by continued blockade, by increasingly intense British and American bombing, by the threat of invasion and by raids on the model of Cherbourg and more recently St. Nazaire. This process, together with the rising temper of the occupied countries will enable us to achieve what has never been done, or even attempted, before.


In a brief talk like this I have only been able to touch on a few of the bigger strategical considerations and have had to leave out many points of absorbing interest. But if they have been properly weighed up they should help us to decide on a definite united strategic policy for winning the war. Quite apart from our own particular course of action, there is the undoubted need to assist our great ally Soviet Russia. Few people have been able to estimate true military ability with accuracy, and many sound judges were happily proved to be wrong last summer.

The plain fact is, however, that in the European theatre on land, Russia is engaging practically the whole weight of German arms and a great proportion of her air strength. This is the one area where there is any hope of achieving the first principle of war—to destroy the enemy's armed forces—within a reasonably short time. Clearly we must continue, and if possible, increase the flow of munitions into Russia even at considerable expense to our own effort and to our own shipping.

The big question then arises and which it is the duty of our Combined Chiefs of Staff to decide is "Which main enemy we should concentrate on to defeat first—Germany or Japan?" The vital theatre which we must hold at all costs is that which contain our two industrial bases, the United Kingdom and North America, and the great sea route running between them. A great defeat in this area— for example if Britain were successfully invaded—would more severely cripple our United power to continue the war than a comparable defeat in any other area. From this point of view, therefore, it must be the first plank in our defensive strategy to defend the British Isles and to pursue the anti-U-boat campaign with increasing vigour. But this is no reason for deciding to concentrate on the defeat of Germany before Japan. Potentially she has greater power to wage war than Japan and can be considered the stronger partner. Is it sound strategy to attack the stronger partner, or will it be better to weaken her by cutting down the weaker first? Again is Germany at this moment the stronger partner? Japan has placed herself in a position of great strategic and economic strength. If she is allowed time to consolidate and expand her war industry she may perhaps be a tougher customer than Germany itself. Germany has probably passed the zenith of her purely military power. Her armies have reached their maximum numerical strength and she is crying out for more labour in her war industries. In the air, the United Nations have almost certainly caught up with her production, and with British and American industry and technical ingenuity combining closely, we do not fear that we shall lose technical superiority.

These considerations, together with the fundamental necessity for conserving our shipping and concentrating it when the time comes to the best military advantage, must lead to a definite decision on our war strategy. Obviously, it would not be right for me in my position to discuss the problem in any more detail than I have. I must be guilty, therefore, of leaving this question for you to answer.

I would, however, like to finish on a more definite note. First of all I would re-emphasize the very close link between strategy and war policy, and what a great short-term advantage the enemy possesses, and what strength individual enemy soldiers and sailors derive from the war creed which has been imbued in them. It is not enough for our armies to be brave; somehow we must imbue our soldiers with the determination not merely to fight for a democratic peace, which is apt sometimes to appear as a vague and distant goal and which has rather a passive appeal. They must fight with a spirit equal to that achieved in the bitterest civil war. Each individual Nazi or Japanese is fighting with almost passionate devotion to his evil creed; we must be sure that our individual fighters are equally filled with the positive determination not to spare themselves in its destruction.

Lastly, we should in my opinion be encouraged by the trend which modern strategy is taking under the influence of mechanized warfare. Air warfare, particularly, should play into the hands of the nation which invented the aeroplane. The proportion of effort employed both in industry and in operating these new weapons is already very great and this is a great advantage to industrial nations like ours. Both the Germans and Japanese were naturally ahead of us in the strategic employment of large air forces at the outset, and they have given us much cause for thought; new developments in warfare are more likely to take place in the aerial field than in any other, and this should be a great comfort to an air-minded nation like this.

Your great naval writer, Admiral Mahan, pointed out that the strength of a navy springs essentially from the possession of a thriving Mercantile Marine—so I venture to predict that the strength of a military air force in the future will spring from a thriving commercial air force.

The British must continue to live by the sea and so always to have the inherent naval strength which they have maintained for the past 300 years. The United States for similar reasons has become a great naval power. You were undoubtedly the greatest civil air power in peace time and before this war is ended you will be the greatest military air power. We were forced to build up a specialized air force for the urgent defence of our homeland, but like you have the need for thriving civil air routes between the outlying Dominions. The combined effect of these complementary and natural powers, blended together in the English-speaking civilization, will, to my mind, be the greatest possible safeguard for the future peace of the world.