The Problems of the encounter battle etc RE Journal and subsequent discussion in Army Quarterly

Discussion in 'General' started by Sheldrake, Jul 18, 2021.

  1. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    FSR II (1929) contains clear elements of the encounter battle as written in the 1920 version but the specific separation of the encounter from the deliberate attack is gone. Like the 1935 version it is a fused narrative of the two - but with greater detail that clearly refers to the unplanned encounter.

    In other words, a distinct trend in in thought away from the encounter battle as a specific point of interest and a parallel reduction in effort to address how to deal with it.
  2. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Thanks a lot for your collective thoughts. Adding a personal recollection

    In 1983-85 I was a captain FOO in direct support of the Irish Guards and 17/21st Lancer battlegroups, paert of the 4th Armoured Brigade. In 1987-89 I served as an artillery staff officer in 4th Armoured Division, which had a NATO role to defeat the Warsaw Pact.

    At no point in my miligtary training did we ever study or practice the encounter battle deliberately... We practiced the advance to combat typically against a disorganised enemy. We practiced quick attacks by sections, platoons, combat terams, company squadron groups and battlegroups, We practiced the defence, learning at Sandhurst about siting two levels down and getting on your belt buckle to site section weapons. Eventially we started to consdier the counter stroke by battlegroups brigades and even divisions.

    But once, just once we had to fight an encounter battle. It was in Exercise Lionheart 1984. The exercise enemy was a micture of Dutch and US troops. These were semi controlled. We were in reserve as part of the reserve division. That meant spenting a lot of time in a hide on electronic silence. We monitored the brigade net and could hear the enemy was coming closer. They were 20 lk away then 10 km away. It was obvious that the Irish Guard battleegroup would need to block the key gap. Time and space ditctated that there was no time for elabourate battleprocedure - but that is not how the brigade of guards works. So we set up to plan the defence of this gap in the hills and the battlegroup R Group - Caommdners down to platoon commanders and the support ares moved forward to a field to plan the defence. The 4th CLY O group must have looked like this at Villers boicage. Lots of clumps of officers and soldiers making tea. - Cue the enemy arriving in M2 Bradleys claiming we were all dead and a long exchange of accusations of cheating.

    There was no providing in late C20th British Doctrine for a "Hasty defence"or counter penetration. I am in a posiiton to know as a graduate of the All Arms Tactics Course to equip sub unit cpmmanders with the tools of the trade. . A really good course studying in depth the different phaes of war and the va1riations appropriate to different terrain. Biut we did not study anything like an encounter battle fought at a pace dictated by enemy movement.
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  3. idler

    idler GeneralList

    It makes you wonder whether Monty's article ended up as filler in the RE journal, having been rejected elsewhere, or was consciously submitted to one of the Army's more professional corps?

    Regarding Villers-Bocage, 7 Armd Div's units' war diaries record some discussions/TEWTs (or TEsWT if you're picky) around the optimal composition of a regimental group's vanguard. This is pre-D-Day, and implies a directive from above to encourage thought...
  4. idler

    idler GeneralList

  5. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Adding to my late night musings re NATO. There were two broad scenarios for land operations in Europe in World War 3. One was the NATO plan which assumed a minimum period of 48 hours of rising tension that allowed the NATO governments to mobilise and deploy to their positions under the General Deployment Plan. We revised the plan annually and practised and rehearsed this every few years in major exercises. Curiously the Warsaw Pact never seemed to practice a large scale deliberate attack.

    The second as recounted in Shelford Bidwell's Third World War book (1979?) assumed a standing start, as did several wargames of the era. (SPI Third World War?) The first NATO would know would be tanks crossing the inner German Border. Under this scenario we would not meet the Warsaw in our planned posiitons but somewhere along the A1 Autobahn or Bundesroute B1. We knew about this.

    We knew that the Group of Soviet Forces Germany kept their vehicles bombed up for war. (Our war stocks of ammuniton were held seperately). BRIXMIS reported how they practiced deplpying close to the frontiedr under electronic silence undetected by western electronic surveillence. We had seen the Soviets achieve surprise in their occupation of Czechoslovakia (1968) and invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. We also knew that the Warsaw Pact's basic tactical manouvre was the meeting engagement. (In retrospect we had some daft exercise scenarios which had the WP apporaching out lines with recce cars first, then a platoon, then a company as if they did not know where our deploymnet would be.) So the Warsaw pact were planning to fight an enemy en route somewhere -a encounter battle or meeting engagement.

    But we never considered how we might fight under these cicumstances. I took part in hundreds of terrain studies, TEWTs and field exercises, but none of these were set with an encounter battle on the way from garrison to the GDP. We practised crashing out from camp to a local hide - with or without NATO observers. But we never practised or ever discussed fighting the war from there.

    There was a blind spot in the area that could be considered as an Encounter Battle, even though rationally we were aware that it was a possiblity if not a likelihood. I wonder if, like much of post war British military thinking and culture it does not have its roots in WW2?
  6. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    I found this in the war diary of 131 Infantry Brigade for Jan 44:


    Training Instruction U.K. No. 1

    Period to end of March

    That all Companies shall have been practised in the encounter battle with Tank and Arty support.

    Programme of Training.

    Full scale training will commence Tuesday [??] 31 Jan.

    Period 31 Jan – 20 Feb. Individual training.
    Period 21 Feb – 12 March. Platoon training.
    Period 13 March – 2 Apr. Company training.

    These dates are suggested but O.C’s should not cut the time allotted for Company Training.


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  7. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Exercise BUMPER was set up in such a way so that an encounter battle was a likely - if not expected - event; two armies advancing to contact both with offensive objectives beyond the line of contact.

    Did it play out as an encounter battle or did Alexander or Carr (or both) contrive to negate it by stopping short and digging in?
  8. JohnB

    JohnB Junior Member

    7th Armoured Division at Villers-Bocage could at least point to their missing armoured car regiment, what was your excuse? :)

    FSR III (1935) section 13 part 2 seems pretty modern to me

    "Success in the first engagements between the reconnoitring and protective troops on either side is important, since it will enable further information to be obtained and
    is likely to upset the plans of the opposing commander and to disturb his judgment: vigorous action should therefore be the usual role of the advanced troops at this stage.
    Commanders of columns should be well forward so as to obtain early information, to act quickly and to influence the action of their leading troops in accordance with the
    intentions of the commander of the force."
  9. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    The trouble with FSR III is it is full of high level platitudes which were not reflected in other doctrinal ot training documents. Archibald Wavell was the master of weasel words. This is probably why ex strategy consultant Jonathan Fennel raves about FSR III as proof that the British Army had sound doctrine covering combined arms, fighting in jungle etc.

    Regarding my own excuses I was merely a cog in the machine. The question might better be addressed to those officers of the battlaion who became generals or senior field officers.
    TTH likes this.
  10. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    You are right - the free play exercises staged within Home Forces resulted in encounter battles - but Montgomery, who had a bee in his bonnet about fighting encounter battles, played a big part in setting the standard for formation training and was the chief umpire for Ex Bumper. Montgomery's series of exercises for V Corps included a free play exercise pitting 3rd and 4th Divisions in a war between Dorset and Hampshire in March 1941 and Ex Tiger for SE Command in May 1942 pitted XII Corps against the Canadian Corps.

    Free play exercises are dangerous moments for a career minded soldier. Weak performance on Op Bumper Ex Bumper cost Carr the chance of a field command and failure on Ex Spartan resulted in the recall of MacNaughton from command of the First Canadian Army.

    One factor which may have downplayed the significance of encounter battles is the post war trend towards exercises with a controlled enemy and shunning free play exercises. It is far easier for officers aiming for the fast escalator to CGS to tick the boxes fighting the targets on battle-runs in Canada and Poland than risk being made to look a chump by a competitor in the career stakes. To be fair the media would have a field day too... ;)
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2021
  11. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Just a thought regarding what started all this off: when calling in favours from sappers or holders of Army Quarterlies, it would be worth trawling some of the subsequent editions. The formal articles may also have been discussed in the correspondence sections.
  12. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    I'm not sure from your comment whether you consider BUMPER to have been fought as an encounter battle or not. The write ups I've perused are not entirely clear about this. They don't provide enough detail to ascertain whether the main forces did indeed clash in the manner of an 'true' encounter or whether one or more of the two sides had pulled up short to try to gain advantage of a bit of hasty digging in and defensive preparation. And therein I believe there is now in our analysis, and then in their understanding, a bit of a grey area as to when an encounter becomes a deliberate battle/attack.

    On the otherhand there is far more clarity in TIGER. The way Montgomery had set up the exercise, the encounter battle was unikely but not impossible. And when it played out, one of the commanders' "plan was to advance upon the commencement of hostilities, and upon gaining contact with the enemy to fight a withdrawing battle".

    Given the "bee in the bonnet", it's a bit of a puzzle why Montgomery went down this route for TIGER in the way he initially set it up and the way it played out.

    I appreciate your reading of Montgomery is far more extensive than mine, but I'm not seeing this fascination with the encounter battle at all. If anything, the very opposite.
  13. idler

    idler GeneralList

    His fascination may not be with the encounter battle per se, but with raising it as a likely enemy's likely tactic and finding answers to it. (He said, trying to second-guess the thrust of as-yet-unseen articles.)
  14. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Indeed. Montgomery's fascination with the encounter battle maybe all about how to avoid it. We can but speculate.

    Nevertheless, it appears Sheldrake's interest in the matter has been piqued by reading elsewhere and it is from that reading that has been lead him to the RE journal. Moreover, I doubt anyone would think it was "bee in the bonnet" scale interest if just the one article had been written. There must be more to it than that.

    From a superficial overview of Montgomery's career as a field commander, avoidance of the encounter battle and complete trust in the well planned set piece battle seem to have been his approach.
  15. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

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  16. Sheldrake

    Sheldrake All over the place....

    Excellent - many thanks.

    Although Montgomery wrote a series of articles in the 1920s for his regimental journal about the development of tactics, this was about the only published article on his pre-war thoughts about contemporary military doctrine. According to his biographer Nigel Hamilton

    It may be important in the development of the controversy about Montgomery, because he re-iterates some of the themes in that article both in remarks about command. It is also contains the testimony that damns some of his claims.

    In para 4 he says that if operations run into difficulties it is usually because the commander has made a bad plan or that lower down the chain of command, commanders lack the knowledge to stage the battle. Para 9 includes the remarks " Therefore a commander must decide before contact is gained how he will fight the battle-only thus will he force his will on the enemy."

    This is the nub of some of the controversy around Montgomery's accounts of his own battles. He claims he always knew how he was going to win and the battle followed his plan - even when it was obvious that plan A had not achieved the objectives and plan B was adopted.

    It also has merit in examining the conduct of operations such as some of the western desert battles which were effectively encounter battles.
  17. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

  18. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    After the build up we've given it in this thread, I was somewhat deflated after finally reading it. Whilst certainly being an interesting read in some respects, had it been penned by Wavell it would probably elicit the retort of "weasel words".

    Whilst Montgomery does address the subject of the title, in reality the twin topics of encounter battle and modern war establishments are there to serve as a platform for his main thrust(s): having a pop at his peers. Clearly he was getting a lot of push back on his proposal to have Brigade and Divisional HQ nearer the front of the marching column and the battle.

    Seems a bit of a strange point to make when Montgomery was the principle author of the infantry manual in the early 30s. Are the thoughts that he put into that not worthy of mention?


    Yes, they were.

    But I feel very little is going to be learned about those battles by unpicking the Montgomery controversy nor from Montgomery's words in this article. In CRUSADER, Norrie was very clear in his mind how he was going to have his encounter battle and how he was going to win it. His plan even held true to Montgomery's ideas that terrain and intelligence play a huge part in its conception AND he had his and his subordinate commanders HQ well forward. None of which meant he actually won his battle.

    For me, para.7 is the real talking point from this article: "In fact it would seem on the face of it that the odds of against successful offensive action on land in first-class war are very great. They certainly will be unless we develop a new technique:" His contribution to the discovery of a new technique is the propasal not to attack as expected at dawn!

    This belief of the defence still holding the ascendency despite the arrival of tanks in the armoury, is no different to those of the the French and British high commands working out how to win the next war.

    Two years after he drafted this paper, the expected first-class opponent had sliced through Poland and a few months later Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Defence was certainly not in the ascendency any longer.

    Understanding the outcomes of early desert battles I feel will only be further clouded and misunderstood with reference to Montgomery's late 30s musing.
  19. JohnB

    JohnB Junior Member

    I actually think it very well written - Wavell was a published poet - and a good complement to FSR II, the 'platitudes' read to me as good principles but then I have never served ..
  20. JohnB

    JohnB Junior Member

    Excellent, thank you.

    Very professional, first class thinking to me. Looking forward to finding what others criticized it for in later publications.

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