Most people think the Germans were the first. Why else would it be called “Blitzkrieg” – Lightning War? Move so fast you literally knock the adversary off his feet. Pierce defense lines at their weakest point, occupy communications centers and destroy or conquer ammo and supply dumps in the enemy’s rear. Smartly use the force of combined arms to totally and utterly destroy the military hardware the other side is using against you – or intended to use against you. However; actually an Australian general can lay justified claim at the fathership of the novel concept, for it was a certain General John Monash, commander of the Australian Corps in France, who on July 4 (!) 1918, at Le Hamel, smashed the German front opposite him in a mere 93 minutes, using an attack with close coordination and cooperation between tanks, warplanes and artillery. This success was followed by another one the next month, when on August 8, 1918, 420 British tanks appeared out of the morning fog in front of the German lines at Amiens, and cut through them like a hot knife through warm butter. Three months later, Germany surrendered.
While it was the British and the French who first used tanks in great numbers (General Monash, after all, "merely” used British and French tanks), the radical change the new weapon would bring about in 20th century warfare was at first, and for a long time, not recognized by them. This was because the mobility of the “landships” – as many viewed them at the time – did not allow them to move much faster than infantrymen. At Amiens e.g. the British won simply because they had so many tanks, whilst the Germans had almost none, and not because the Brits used their new huge killers efficiently. Indeed, the whole homemade tank force of the Kaiser consisted of some 20 – that’s twenty – unwieldy and totally ineffective A7V’s.
All that changed during the interbellum, because mechanical and electrical innovations greatly improved engine reliability and performance. And while the victors did have visionary thinkers and pragmatists recognizing the potential of fast armoured warfare in close cooperation with other arms – like a De Gaulle in France, a Fuller and a Liddell Hart in the UK – it was, not surprisingly after all, the vanquished who were adamant in their efforts to develop the concept of armoured thrusts in cooperation with other arms, to the leading doctrine of modern warfare. Some of the names of the German advocates sound familiar: there was Guderian, author of the standard work "Achtung-Panzer!". There was a Lutz, a Von Reichenau and a Von Thoma. They established the theorema that tanks would be organized in independent units and not be subordinated to infantry. Together these men laid the foundations for the Blitzkrieg as we know it, and that the Germans had specifically designed Panzerdivisionen in 1940 which they used to great effect, is due to them.
People from our age, used to seeing fast moving tanks in newsreels and war movies, have a tendency to dismiss the effects of armoured warfare and indeed may not grasp what a tremendous advantage he, who uses combined arms properly, has over he, to whom warfare is adjusting your front like a child would arrange his toy soldiers and model tanks. A couple of the latter here, a cannon there, a sole tank somewhat further, then an antiaircraft battery, finally the whole interspersed with infantry. The innocent reader who pores over handy stats in his newspaper comparing the strenghts of opposing armies may assume, because party A has much more troops and much more tanks than party B, that the former's victory in case of conflict is guaranteed. Not at all! Of equal, if not greater importance, is how you properly use your military potential. Few people realize that at the beginning of WWII Britain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands had actually more boots on the ground and more tanks than Nazi Germany. But in May 1940, the numerically inferior Germans truly revolutionized warfare. Panzer divisions were acting independently from infantry formations or, indeed, had their own infantry moving along with them in armoured personnel carriers, travelling at the same speed. Thanks to radio, tank commanders could interact with their subordinates, directing platoons here and there, ordering the whole formation to at once turn left or right, even call in pinpoint artillery barrages from mechanized (!) artillery or airstrikes from the ever present Stukas – divebombers – buzzing overhead. These dreadful planes could perform precision hits by releasing their deadly charge within meters of the designated target, and had a "net" effect roughly comparable to an F-16 performing a precision strike. Fuel, ammo, all kinds of supplies were flown in on captured airfields right behind the advancing panzer juggernaut. All of this required top-notch logistics, which the Germans mastered just as well. In short, the German armor, infantry, artillery, and airforce acted unisono. In 2006 codespeak, they were networked. Opposing the Germans were the combined armies of British, French, Belgians and Dutch – with outdated equipment, lacking tactical doctrines, lacking essential communication between ground units and own planes flying overhead, finally, when seeing the strength and ability of the enemy, lacking conviction. In 2006 codespeak, their computers were 80's AT’s and they exchanged info by distributing floppy disks. In ten days, the Germans traded their border for the French coast at Calais, a feat they had not been able to produce in four years during World War I. It was a lightning war indeed. Three and a half weeks later, half France lay down in tatters and Belgium and The Netherlands were completely occupied, while a shocked Britain was anxiously awaiting a German invasion.
B.) SOUTHERN LEBANON, JULY/AUGUST 2006.
Enter Israel on Wednesday July 12, 2006, but first have a glance at the maps below. To the left, you see what Israel was like at the end of the sixth day in the Six-Day War, June 5, 1967 to June 11, 1967. Yes, all the cream-colored territory comprises not only what the Israelis started with, that is to say their tiny territory (yellow on the map to the right): 20,770 square kilometres, think somewhat smaller than New Jersey. But also: the whole Sinai peninsula, the West Bank AND the Golan Heights. In less than a week, the IDF had conquered over 50,000 square kilometres so that Israel was now three and a half times its original size. To the right, you see what Israel won at the end of 34 days of fighting in July and August of 2006: the pitifully small red area representing southern Lebanon between the border with Israel and the Litani River, give and take 1000 square kilometres. Of which they began to withdraw the day after they had finally taken it.
As all of us have heard ad nauseam, the conflict started on July 12 with Hizballah lobbing katyushas across the border at the town of Shlomi and ambushing an Israeli patrol, killing eight soldiers and abducting two. Thanks to CNN, the NYT, the BBC and AJ the actions of the Israeli Air Force have received ample coverage so I think it's useless to shed any more light upon that aspect of the hostilities. But the actions of the Israeli government regarding the ground offensive are less wel known, and actually read like a manual of how not to do it:
12/7 to 18/7: Israel calls up reservists, artillery fires across the border.
19/7: Israeli infantry crosses into southern Lebanon to carry out what the army called "restricted pinpoint attacks". Two soldiers die in clashes with Hizballah fighters.
20/7: further clashes
22/7: The Israeli army continues ground incursions into southern Lebanon. A communique says it has gained control of the village of Maroun al-Ras after several days of fighting. Troops continue to mass along Israel's northern border, but the Israeli government says it is not planning a full-scale ground invasion.
23/7: Israeli Secdef Amir Peretz says Israel would agree to the proposed deployment of a multi-national force in southern Lebanon and suggests it should be led by NATO.
24/7: Fighting in southern Lebanon between small Israeli and Hizballah units around the village of Bint Jbeil, a few kilometers inside Lebanon.
26/7: Nine Israeli soldiers killed, 22 injured in fighting around Bint Jbeil. Another soldier dies in the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.
27/7: The Israeli security cabinet decides to call up more reserves to refresh troops fighting in southern Lebanon but rules out widening the military offensive.
29/7: Israeli forces withdraw from Bint Jbeil which they had been trying to take for some days.
1/8: Israeli forces, small in number, wage fierce clashes with Hizballah fighters in southern Lebanon. Three soldiers are killed and 25 slightly injured in clashes in the border village of Ait al-Shaab. The Israelis claim to have "hit dozens of Hizballah gunmen".
3/8: According to Israeli officials, Defence Minister Amir Peretz orders top army officers to begin preparing for a push to the Litani river, which is up to 30km (19 miles) north of the border.
4/8: There is heavy fighting in southern Lebanon as small IDF units try to push Hezbollah back from the border.
7/8: Three IDF soldiers and five Hezbollah militants are killed in clashes in the southern Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil, the Israeli military says.
8/8: Israeli PM Ehud Olmert calls Beirut's plan to send 15,000 troops to the south if Israel withdraws an "interesting step" which Israel will examine.
9/8: Israel's security cabinet approves a plan to send troops towards the Litani River, up to 30km (18 miles) from the border, but delays implementing the plan to allow more time for diplomacy. Fifteen Israeli soldiers are killed during a day of intense fighting in Lebanese villages near the border. Israel says 40 Hizballah guerrillas also died.
12/8: UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announces that ceasefire will come into effect at 0500GMT on Monday. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert describes the resolution as positive and acceptable, and says he will put it to his cabinet on Sunday. Israel continues ground attacks, tripling its forces inside Lebanon and reaching as far north as the Litani river.
14/8: Hizballah distributes leaflets congratulating Lebanon on its "big victory", and leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah gives an address broadcast on Hezbollah television claiming an "historic victory".
Congratulations Peretz and Olmert.
The last few days are interesting, because on August 12, Israel could suddenly "triple" its forces in southern Lebanon. But what does tripling mean when you have only a couple of thousand troops at hand? From what I have read, only during the very last days were there more than 10,000 Israeli soldiers on Lebanese territory. And while I have never come across a record detailing IDF tank strength, I would wager they never put more than 150 in the field. Now, most military analysts assume Israels standing army at roughly 180,000. Deduct personnel from other arms and non-combatants, and you have probably 45,000 infantry. Furthermore, it is generally agreed they have 4,000 tanks. While I assume a lot of these are stored in styrofoam for use when it really gets hot, a number of 500 tanks ready to roll does not seem that unrealistic to me. Don't get me wrong. Those few soldiers who did cross into Lebanon and faced Hizballah deserve a lot of praise, but WHY THE HELL was the IDF for one month tipping its toe into Lebanon the way a Saint-Tropez bimbette would gauge the water temperature on the beach of Narvik???
C.) KLOTZEN, NICHT KLECKERN.
There's a compatriot of mine blogging from Israel, or shall I say, a former compatriot, since his nom de web is "Former Belgian". I occasionally enter there without knocking. So I did on May 1, 2006, to find a post of him on the new Olmert Cabinet then being formed. Let me quote, from that post, the following excerpt:
WHat about Labour?
*Amir Peretz: Defense Minister
*Yuli Tamir: Education Minister
*Shalom Simchon: Agriculture Minister
*Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer: National Infrastructure Minister
*Isaac "Bougie" Herzog: Tourism
*Ophir Pines-Paz: Sports and Jerusalem Affairs
*Eitan Cabel: Public Broadcast Ministry (what?!)
I don't trust Yuli Tamir (she smells a bit too much of "left"ist humanities academe for my taste), but at least she has qualifications to be Education Minister. Shalom Simchon has held the Agriculture portfolio in at least one government I can remember off-hand. But Amir Peretz as Defense Minister?!? G-d help us.
Dang, there you have it. Amir Peretz, a socialist as Defense Minister. Tell me all about it. In Belgium, for some reason the post of Defense Minister goes in 9 out of 10 cases to the Parti Socialiste, and the result is that over the past three decades the Belgian Army has morphed into a cross between the Boyscouts and The Waltons. Then we have PM Ehud Olmert. Yeah, I heard all the excusing stuff that he truly is a military figure since he served in the Golani Brigade. He may have deserved the Israeli equivalent of a Purple Heart for injuries to his arm and leg, but after all he completed his military duties as a war correspondent for the IDF magazine Bamahane. And about that later stint in the IDF, that 1980 reserve officer course: he was already a MK then, so I guess that episode wasn't exactly Tigerland. To me, it's more telling that Olmert has B.A. and LL.B. degrees in Psychology, Philosophy and Law, plus, that he is a lawyer by profession. My mom often told me that two things you should always steer clear of are hospitals and lawyers. She might have added to it socialist defense ministers, check out this Israelinsider article from April 27, 2006 and weep.
The point is, a pivotal military operation, the good outcome of which would have broken the back, or else seriously damaged Hizballah, has been handled by politicians. Worse: undecided, hesitating politicans. We were talking about Guderian. There's a famous quote from that fella, attributed to him when his Fuehrer once again committed forces piecemeal. It is:
Loosely translated as: Boot'em, don't spatter 'em!!! Which is exactly what happened on the Israeli-Lebanese border. For over one month, frikkin politicans held one of the finest armies in the world on the leash, trying to fix the situation with a platoon here, a company there, relying solely on air power, and for the rest squarely ignoring desperate pleas of the top military brass to let them have their way. And it shows: the end result is that they lost military, political and moral capital. To paraphrase another fella who preferred klotzen over kleckern: Olmert and Peretz had the choice between dishonor and war. They chose neither, and got the first. There is little doubt in my mind that if the IDF had been allowed to switch to Blitzkrieg mode, they would have splattered Hizballah against the wall like an annoying bug. The Litani River is only thirty kloms north of the Israeli border. A powerful strike northwards with, say, the equivalent of three divisions to the northwest to Tyre, supported by far-ranging artillery and undisputed air power, might have reached that city in a matter of hours. The geography of the border region is even such that simultaneously, an Israeli attack from the east would have been possible, thus enabling the IDF to roll up what was posing for a Hizballah "front" from behind. Had these thrusts been undertaken within a week, it can reasonably be assumed that a good deal of Hizballah missile launcher park would have been trapped on the wrong side of the Litani, whereas now they were permitted to escape safely to the north of the river.
I do not buy all the garbage of Hizballah consisting of professional soldiers. They are not. Fanatics, especially religious fanatics, are very often devoid of two qualities which are essential for successful fighting men, and these are intelligence and imagination. Over the past years, there have been numerous occasions showing that the much vaunted Islamic Holy Warrior is probably the least effective fighter in the history of mankind. Proof? One "skirmish" on August 6, 2004 between al-Sadr's Mehdi "Army" and US Marines. 300 KIA for the former, against (alas) two for the latter. Fallujah, November 2004: some 1,500 terrorists killed against (unfortunately) 71 US troops - this while the defenders had the priceless advantage of defending from an urban area. Afghanistan, Baluchi Valley, July 2006. Dutch Commandos kill 18 Taliban, the latest victory in a string of successes where dozens of Islams Holiest Trippers, erm, Troopers, were taken out. Dutch losses throughout the whole campaign: none. Repeat: none. To be sure, the Hezbo, Hamas, Mehdi, AQ nutters et al can be quite succesful in taking out huge numbers of certain categories of enemies, like, uh, infidel women and children, barbers, schoolteachers, commuters, people shopping on market squares, blindfolded abducted soldiers and so on. After which our zeroes issue resounding communiques going like "Thank God our brave mujahedeen were able to slaughter the infidel enemies of Allah and cast them in the deepest abyss of Hell and blah blah de blah etcetera".
But when faced with real soldiers it's always the same song, and this kind of stories goes a long time back, even beyond the time when the banner the adversary was gathering under was not so much islamism as it was pan-arabism. Consider the map of the Israeli offensive in the Sinai, from 5 to 8 June 1967. The Egyptian defenses had much more military hardware than Hezbollah, with 7 divisions totalling 100,000 troops, 1,000 tanks and hundreds of artillery pieces. In true Blitzkrieg fashion three IDF divisions and two brigades concentrated their offensive on the weakest spot in the Egyptian main defense line in the east of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, broke through them, never cared for their flanks and finally sent the enemy running in a hurry for the Suez Canal. While the three IDF divisions all fought well, one distinguished itself in particular. Its axis of operations ran through the heart of the Sinai, which it reached on the third day of the offensive. Its commander was a certain General Ariel Sharon, Arik for friends. Arik lies in a coma now, and his place has been taken by civilians. It shows. Had the operations in southern Lebanon been run as Arik did in the Sinai almost forty years ago, the IDF would have cut through Hizballah - and yet another quote, this time from General Patton - like crap through a goose.