On War #318: Operation Albion

William S. Lind
19 October 2009

Last week I had the pleasure of helping lead a staff ride of Operation Albion for the Baltic Defence College. Especially for people with an interest in amphibious operations, Albion is one of the best case studies history offers.

In Operation Albion, which was carried out in early October, 1917 – our staff ride duplicated its timing – Germany took three large Baltic islands, now Estonian, from the Russians. In effect, it was Germany’s Gallipoli, though with very different results.

As a case study, Albion offers lessons on many levels. Two are of special importance. First, Albion illustrates a marriage of amphibious operations with the new German stormtroop tactics of late World War I, tactics that when combined with Panzer divisions created the Blitzkrieg. Instead of doing what the U. S. Marine Corps still does and send in landing waves that take a beachhead, then stop and build up combat power for a further advance – the Somme from the sea – the Germans landed multiple thrusts which immediately advanced as far and as fast as they could, without regard for open flanks. Speed was their main weapon, speed made possible because part of the force was equipped with bicycles.

Operation Albion was genuine Operational Maneuver from the Sea, a term U. S. Marines use but seldom understand. While the American model for amphibious operations remains Second Generation, Albion, carried out almost 100 years ago, was Third Generation.

Second, Operation Albion illustrates a Third Generation military’s ability to adapt to new situations quickly. The Imperial German Army and Navy put Albion together in a few weeks. They did so despite having no amphibious doctrine, no amphibious experience and no amphibious Marine Corps (Imperial German Marines were primarily colonial troops). How did they do it? Through the lateral communication and strong spirit of cooperation that characterize Third Generation forces.

That lesson is a timely one. In Iraq, the U.S. military took years to adapt to fighting an insurgency. Second Generation forces adapt to new situations slowly because most communication is hierarchical and cooperation is nullified by centrally-controlled synchronization. As John Boyd often said, you synchronize watches, not people.

Our two-day staff ride of Albion, on Oesel and Moon islands, benefitted greatly from having Dr. Bruce Gudmundsson along. The author of Stormtroop Tactics, the best book on the development of Third Generation tactics in the German Army in World War I, Bruce is also a specialist in the case study method of instruction. The Baltic Defence College students appeared new to the case study method, but like all students, they seemed to find it preferable to the usual classroom lectures. With one exception, they seemed to “get it.”

That exception was operational art. Regrettably, they had been taught a mechanical method for determining an operational center of gravity. Like all such methods, it was misleading. No art can be done by set method; the result is paint-by-numbers art, which is to say junk. However, once students have been taught a method, they are loath to give it up. They have “checked the box,” and they do not want to revisit the matter, especially when the (valid) alternative is a way of thinking that cannot be reduced to a formula.

Again, Operation Albion proved the perfect case study. Why? Because for both the Germans and the Russians, the operational center of gravity was not in the area of operations. It lay instead to the north and east, in the Gulf of Finland and the approaches to Kronstadt and Petrograd. The German success in Operation Albion sent powerful messages to the Russian government as to the safety of their capital, messages on the physical, mental and moral levels.

No method could reveal that central fact to the students, which hopefully debunked all methodical approaches to operational art. As General Hermann Balck said, only a few can do it, most can never learn. The world is not full of Raphaels either.

As the Central Powers’ representative to the U.S. Marine Corps, I took great pleasure in proving that Stolz weht die Flagge Schwarz-Weiss-Rot!

[CR: Boyd interviewed Gen Balck in the late 1970s, and chart 118 of Patterns of Conflict was one of the results.  He was considered one of Germany’s finest operational commanders and figures heavily in von Mellenthin’s book, Panzer Battles.]

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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