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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Filed in Uncategorized | 11 responses so far

11 Responses to “On War #318: Operation Albion”

  1. senor tomason 22 Oct 2009 at 9:25 pm 1

    ” The Imperial German Army and Navy put Albion together in a few weeks.”

    Such a feat would be extremely difficult or even impossible to achieve in the United States military – because of its culture of inter-service rivarly.

  2. OldSkepticon 25 Oct 2009 at 4:30 am 2

    Plus, Bill has a weakness, as good as he is. He always compares Germany against the US.

    How did Monty beat them? And it was Monty at D-day, El Alemain, Sicily, Italy.

    Even with inferior forces. El Alemain he did not have the forces to win aginst an intrenched German force, and these were Germans under Rommel no less.

    He did not have a 3:1 advantage in any area, in the RAF he was actually inferior in numbers and quality (Me109s vs Kittyhawks and Hurricanes). So how did he win? It wasn’t numbers it wasn’t quality. Shermans were just an equal to the Mk IV’s and no one had an answer to the 88’s then.

    D- Day, a simple look at the force numbers and Germany should have driven them into the sea easily. So how did he do it .. and he was the man in charge.

    So what was the difference?

    [CR: Interesting. You’re the first person I can remember who credits Monty with victory on D-Day. At El-Alemain, as I recall, a severe shortage of fuel limited Rommel’s ability to maneuver.

    Comments anybody?]

  3. Jvilleon 26 Oct 2009 at 1:25 pm 3

    Wasnt Rommel recieving treatment for an ear infection in Germany, which lead to a string of chain of command delays for the German defence for D-Day? Thats the first thing that pops to mind for me.

  4. rmhitchenson 26 Oct 2009 at 2:15 pm 4

    I don’t think any respected military historian would argue that Montgomery won at El Alamein against the odds. Each side fielded a dozen divisions, but German & Italian divisions had half to 2/3 the manpower and firepower of British divisions. As I recall the RAF had a strong numerical edge in the air battle, even if the Me-109G was qualitatively superior to most if not all Brit fighters. And, as was pointed out, Panzerarmee Afrika was at the end of a very long supply line; no less a historian than Martin van Creveld has written that Rommel’s advance into Egypt after Tobruk should never have been allowed. Montgomery was the consummate “careful operator” and deserves qualified praise for his victories, but the notion of doing more with less was alien to him. His rise was also an accident, the designated 8th Army commander, Lt Gen Gott, having been killed when the transport aircraft in which he was riding was shot down by a German fighter. Gott would likely have done as well as Monty at El Alamein, and gone on to become a Field Marshal.

    [CR: I’m not an expert on Monty by any means. From what I’m told by those who are, he is underrated by most American historians, but they still don’t put him in the same league with Manstein, Rommel, or Patton as a field commander. Again, anyone with expertise care to enlighten us?]

  5. loggie20on 27 Oct 2009 at 6:10 pm 5

    Reading different historians gives vastly different feel for battles and operations.

    I am reading a bio of AP Hill and I am amazed the North did not run out of soldiers.

    Rommel was beaten at El Alemain by a mix of superior logistics, lots of arty and broad advance which was not pulled into kessels as Rommel did to Monty’s predecessor (as well as the US Armor in the environs of Kasserine Pass).

    Monty’s plodding across Libya was text book, broad front and slow enough so that Rommel could authorize an end run into Kasserine Pass and not have enough resources to follow up. During execution Rommel was in Berlin seeing Hitler about his logistics and getting treated for a severe sinus issue.

    If I recall correctly from Steven Ambrose’s books, Monty was no speed demon in Normandy and his day 6 objectives were achieved around week 8.

    The Americans at Omaha performd great feats of military ardour and valor getting off the beach. The limited (to maintain surprise) bombing and naval gunnery preparations on D-Day did almost nothing on most of the beaches least on Omaha.

    On 6 June 1944 Rommel was in Germany, however, Ike was well prepared for anything, and the hold back of the German armor only kept them alive to be killed by the arty or Air Corps later. Anything moving in Normandy and the environs was strafed, bombed or engaged by naval gunnery including the 14 inch guns from the USS Texas.

    But who could predict? In Market Garden Monty went straight ahead, small front, easily collapsed flanks and got choked off. Good thing the US 101 held on to its bridges so some of the Allies did not get cut off.

    On WW II in the ETO (European Theater) I recommend Rick Atkinson’s works: Army at Dawn, and Day of Battle. I anticipate his third work soon.

    Also Steven Ambrose.

    Otherwise new books on the US Civil War are keeping me interested.

    [CR: Thanks – new books on the Civil War? Does the South do better this time?]

  6. Duncan C Kinderon 29 Oct 2009 at 3:00 pm 6

    Anything moving in Normandy and the environs was strafed, bombed or engaged by naval gunnery including the 14 inch guns from the USS Texas.

    The 16 inch guns of HMS Rodney were more impressive.

  7. loggie20on 29 Oct 2009 at 11:07 pm 7

    Duncan,

    Thank you, the D Day histories I read were by Americans.

    I have seen the USS Texas at San Jacinto, Tx; a beautiful boat!!

  8. Barryon 12 Nov 2009 at 1:41 pm 8

    In a new book on British history up to 1945 Andrew Marr says he was startled to read Winston Churchill and his generals privately complaining about the lack of fighting spirit shown by British troops. Monty worked with what he had. Even Patton achieved his greatest successes only when he was given good divisions .

    Rommel used quite a big siege train of heavy guns in his successes but he was regarded as too easily discouraged by his peers. The Naval gunnery was not working effectively on D day which was the critical point.

    Monty put a stop to the British tanks ethos of getting ‘blood on the tracks’ – which led to disastrous charges – and intergrated them into the wider effort. Concentrated mass artillery was his preferred method; in consequence he wouldn’t move any faster than the heavy guns could be moved up. I’ve read that the rest of the allies was advanced at that speed too for much of the time.

    [CR: Barry, thanks.]

  9. Barryon 13 Nov 2009 at 12:53 pm 9

    As to the speed objectives were reached – the assumptions were too optimistic. Proof of this is that Monty insisted on changing the original D day plan by increasing the number of troops. That was his biggest contribution to the success.

    I’ve read that the Germans benefited from the lack of Allied activity at night, very different to the Russians.

  10. loggie20on 14 Nov 2009 at 9:00 am 10

    Monty in North Africa insisted the British armor not counter attack without sufficient support to overcome Rommel’s kessels set up with their superb anti tank artillery. Up to Monty Rommel would run an attack and then fade drawing British armor into a trap. Monty saw this and stopped it once his immediate predecessor was relieved.

    Rommel could have been a student of R. E. Lee and JEB Stuart in combined arms against larger force tactics.

    Same thing happened to the US armor east and the day before the Afrika Corps hit Kasserine Pass.

    As to D Day. The naval bombardment was planned to be minimal and mainly to disrupt reinforcement and comms. This was partly for the surprise effect. However, as things went sour the destroyers came in shore and provided direct fires.

    The bomber preparation at D Day was a bleak result. No effect on bunkers and missed most of the beach obstacles.

    Omaha in particular was a “close run affair” saved by initiative and valor at the individual level to form up and move out with squads and platoons built from the survivors of the first waves.

  11. Barryon 16 Nov 2009 at 5:59 am 11

    Rommel didn’t have all that many tanks but he had had quite a lot of airpower early on, the Luftwaffe assets diverted to the Afrika Korps from the main German effort were most significant.

    When he didn’t have air cover Rommel was discouraged. So was sometime Afrika Korps commander Fritz Bayerlein, when commanding the Panzer Lehr division. Bayerlein’s operations officer said of him ‘he was a very good soldier but he was worn out, in Normandy he showed himself to be nervous and weak’

    Having combat experience isn’t always a recipe for fighting spirit. Monty’s ‘desert rats’ had become cunning in the reduction of risk, when they were used in Normandy (us again!) it maybe explains some of Churchills complaints.