The British Way of War in North West Europe 1944-45: A Study of Two Infantry Divisions
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This thesis will examine the British way of war as experienced by two British Infantry Divisions - the 43rd ‘Wessex’ and 53rd ‘Welsh’ - during the Overlord campaign in North West Europe in 1944 and 1945. The main locus of research centres on the fighting components of those divisions; the infantry battalions and their supporting regiments. In order to understand the way the British fought this part of the war, the thesis will consider the British Army’s history since 1918: its level of expertise at the end of the First World War; the impact of inter-war changes, and the experience of the early part of the Second World War, as these factors were fundamental in shaping how the British Army operated during the period covered in this study. These themes will be considered in the first chapter. The following seven chapters will study each of the two infantry divisions in turn, to maintain a chronological order. This is so that the experiences of each division can be examined in a logical way, from their initial experiences of combat in late June 1944 through to March 1945. Naturally, their major battles will be considered but so will their minor engagements and day-to-day experiences, as this will give a good, detailed, overview of each division’s campaign. This layout of chapters is also convenient for allowing comparisons between the two divisions as the campaign progressed. This thesis contains several strands of enquiry which will consider how Montgomery’s prosecution of the war actually translated to the smaller units of the division (the battalions, 4 companies, platoons and sections). The historiography for this campaign tends to suggest that the British Army fought the war in a cautious way, and that this approach was characterised by the use of overwhelming material superiority and rehearsed set piece attacks; tactics that were designed not only to destroy the enemy, but also to avoid the heavy casualties of the major battles of the First World War; a factor that was perceived to be vital to the maintenance of fragile infantry morale. Although the basic premise of a ‘cautious’ British way of war is generally accepted (along with its attendant emphasis on consolidation of objectives rather than exploitation of opportunities, and a reliance on adherence to lengthy orders), this study will conclude that the way the war was fought at sub-divisional levels was frequently at a pace that did not allow for such caution. Instead, it was characterised by command pressure to achieve results quickly, hasty planning and a reliance on massive artillery and mortar contributions to compensate for deficiencies in anti-tank and armoured support. This thesis will further conclude that a conscious policy of casualty conservation appears not to have been a priority at divisional command level, but was instead a consideration for company, platoon and section commanders and the men that they led.
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