Strange defeat

One of the consequential puzzles of the Second World War was the sudden, catastrophic collapse of the French army following German invasion in 1940. This is the subject of Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, written in 1940, and it is an event of major historical importance and mystery. The mystery is this: France was a powerful military force, it had declared war against Germany following the Nazi invasion of Poland, it had ample warning that Germany would wage war against it soon following the invasion of Poland, and it had invested heavily in defensive materiel against an anticipated German attack. And yet when the attack came in May 1940, France was surprised, French armies were quickly defeated, and France capitulated after only six weeks of fighting.

Most people who have written on Bloch’s account have focused on the high-level hypotheses to be found in the book: incompetence in the French high command, political dysfunction within the French elite, and a predilection for “Hitler rather than Blum” among the elites. However, upon rereading, it is evident that Bloch has other ideas about the failure of the French military besides these large conflicts within French politics and society. As a staff officer with responsibilities for the organization of logistics, Bloch had ample opportunity to observe the behavior and decision-making of line officers and staff officers. And he focuses a great deal of attention on issues having to do with the mindset and expectations of French military men: what they understand about the battle situation, how they anticipate future needs, and how they communicate with other important actors.

The ‘thinking oneself into the other fellow’s shoes’ is always a very difficult form of mental gymnastics, and it is not confined to men who occupy a special position in the military hierarchy. But it would be foolish to deny that staff officers as a whole have been a good deal to blame in this matter of sympathetic understanding. Their failure, when they did fail, was, however, due–I feel pretty sure–not so much to contempt as to lack of imagination and a tendency to take refuge from the urgency of fact in abstractions. (34)

So cognitive and mental framework shortcomings rise to the very top in Bloch’s analysis of French army failures in the conduct of the war:

What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was, essentially, a triumph of intellect — and it is that which makes it so peculiarly serious. (36)

These limitations of imagination and worldview issues were worsened by what Bloch identifies as a crippling organizational deficiency in the French army — the strict separation between line officers and staff officers. This led to a very large separation in their worldviews, expectations, and ways of thinking about military matters between line and staff officers. Neither group knew what the other group was thinking or presupposing about the complex conditions of war in which they operated.

One simple and obvious remedy for this state of affairs would have been to establish a system which would have made it possible for small groups of officers to serve, turn and turn about, in the front line and at H.Q. But senior generals dislike having the personnel of their staffs changed too often. It should be remembered that in 1915 and 1916 their opposition to any reform along these lines led to an almost complete divorce between the outlook of the regimental and the staff officer. (35)

Associated with these cognitive framework failures was the French military’s failure to adjust to the new “tempo of war” created by German tactics. Bloch recognized through his own experience that the German strategy relied on a tempo of action that outpaced the ability of the French high command and army to react effectively. “From the beginning to the end of the war, the metronome at headquarters was always set at too slow a beat” (43).

This “tempo” problem was not restricted only to the high command:

But it would not be fair to confine these criticisms to the High Command. Generally speaking, the combatant troops were no more successful than the staff in adjusting their movements or their tactical appreciations to the speed at which the Germans moved. (47)

This too can be unpacked into an organizational point: the line officers throughout the chain of command had too little training and readiness for initiative and adaptation; and when plans went wrong, chaos ensued. “They [the Germans] relied on action and on improvisation. We, on the other hand, believed in doing nothing and in behaving as we always had behaved” (49). Bloch is explicit in recognizing that initiative and improvisation could have substantially improved the French position:

That is why the Germans, true to their doctrine of speed, tended more and more to move their shock elements along the main arteries. It was, therefore, absolutely unnecessary to cover our front with a line extending for hundreds of kilometres, almost impossible to man, and terribly easy to pierce. On the other hand, the invader might have been badly mauled by a few islands of resistance well sited along the main roads, adequately camouflaged, sufficiently mobile, and armed with a few machine-guns and anti-tank artillery, or even with the humble 75! (50-51)

And the battlefield consequences of the French military’s organizational discouragement of initiative and adaptation were severe:

But I am very much afraid that where this sort of self-government and mutual understanding did not exist, contacts between units and their senior formations, or, on the same level, between one unit and another, left a good deal to be desired. I have more than once heard regimental officers complain that they were left too long without orders, and it is very certain–as I have already shown by citing notorious examples–that the staff was imperfectly informed about what was happening on their section of the front. (66)

Bloch’s account has many other strands of organizational observation concerning features of the French army that led to poor performance — about “discipline of troops”, about the intelligence organization, and about the poor liaison relationships that had been developed between French and British army staff.

There is an important lesson to draw here: Bloch’s account is usually read as an indictment of French politics and society in the 1930s, but not as a detailed military and organizational study of failure. And yet, it is clear that Bloch has provided a great deal of content that contributes to exactly this kind of micro-level analysis of military dysfunction. Bloch, it turns out, was an astute organizational observer.

There is an interesting parallel between the collapse in 1940 and the comparably dramatic collapse of French armies in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian war (link). In both wars there was an obstinate rigidity in the French general staff that impeded adaptiveness to the changing and unexpected circumstances of the war that quickly engulfed them. Michael Howard’s excellent history, The Franco-Prussian War provides extensive details about the sources of military failure in 1870.

It is worth observing that the defeat of France was not the only “strange defeat” that occurred between 1939 and 1941. Poland’s very weak defense against Hitler’s invasion in 1939, Stalin’s unconvincing effort to invade Finland in 1939, and the stunning successes of Hitler’s Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 all represent military catastrophes that were on their face unlikely. In the Barbarossa case, much of the explanation falls on Stalin directly: his murderous purges of the Red Army officer corps in 1937, his mulish refusal to accept intelligence about a likely German invasion in summer 1941, his disastrous interference in strategy, placement of armies, and his unconditional orders that made maneuver impossible all combined to produce catastrophe in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Russia itself in the first six months of the invasion. This suggests that perhaps explaining successful largescale military undertakings is harder than explaining failure and defeat. There are many ways to fail in a large, complex and highly coordinated activity like an invasion, and only a few ways to succeed.

Turing’s journey

A recent post comments on the value of biography as a source of insight into history and thought. Currently I am reading Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983), which I am finding fascinating both for its portrayal of the evolution of a brilliant and unconventional mathematician as well as the honest efforts Hodges makes to describe Turing’s sexual evolution and the tragedy in which it eventuated. Hodges makes a serious effort to give the reader some understanding of Turing’s important contributions, including his enormously important “computable numbers” paper. (Here is a nice discussion of computability in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophylink.) The book also offers a reasonably technical account of the Enigma code-breaking process.

Hilbert’s mathematical imagination plays an important role in Turing’s development. Hilbert’s speculation that all mathematical statements would turn out to be derivable or disprovable turned out to be wrong, and Turing’s computable numbers paper (along with Godel and Church) demonstrated the incompleteness of mathematics. But it was Hilbert’s formulation of the idea that permitted the precise and conclusive refutations that came later. (Here is Richard Zack’s account in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Hilbert’s program; link.)

And then there were the machines. I had always thought of the Turing machine as a pure thought experiment designed to give specific meaning to the idea of computability. It has been eye-opening to learn of the innovative and path-breaking work that Turing did at Bletchley Park, Bell Labs, and other places in developing real computational machines. Turing’s development of real computing machines and his invention of the activity of “programming” (“construction of tables”) make his contributions to the development of digital computing machines much more advanced and technical than I had previously understood. His work late in the war on the difficult problem of encrypting speech for secure telephone conversation was also very interesting and innovative. Further, his understanding of the priority of creating a technology that would support “random access memory” was especially prescient. Here is Hodges’ summary of Turing’s view in 1947:

Considering the storage problem, he listed every form of discrete store that he and Don Bayley had thought of, including film, plugboards, wheels, relays, paper tape, punched cards, magnetic tape, and ‘cerebral cortex’, each with an estimate, in some cases obviously fanciful, of access time, and of the number of digits that could be stored per pound sterling. At one extreme, the storage could all be on electronic valves, giving access within a microsecond, but this would be prohibitively expensive. As he put it in his 1947 elaboration, ‘To store the content of an ordinary novel by such means would cost many millions of pounds.’ It was necessary to make a trade-off between cost and speed of access. He agreed with von Neumann, who in the EDVAC report had referred to the future possibility of developing a special ‘Iconoscope’ or television screen, for storing digits in the form of a pattern of spots. This he described as ‘much the most hopeful scheme, for economy combined with speed.’ (403)

These contributions are no doubt well known by experts on the history of computing. But for me it was eye-opening to learn how directly Turing was involved in the design and implementation of various automatic computing engines, including the British ACE machine itself at the National Physical Laboratory (link). Here is Turing’s description of the evolution of his thinking on this topic, extracted from a lecture in 1947:

Some years ago I was researching on what might now be described as an investigation of the theoretical possibilities and limitations of digital computing machines. I considered a type of machine which had a central mechanism and an infinite memory which was contained on an infinite tape. This type of machine appeared to be sufficiently general. One of my conclusions was that the idea of a ‘rule of thumb’ process and a ‘machine process’ were synonymous. The expression ‘machine process’ of course means one which could be carried out by the type of machine I was considering…. Machines such as the ACE may be regarded as practical versions of this same type of machine. There is at least a very close analogy. (399)

At the same time his clear logical understanding of the implications of a universal computing machine was genuinely visionary. He was evangelical in his advocacy of the goal of creating a machine with a minimalist and simple architecture where all the complexity and specificity of the use of the machine derives from its instructions (programming), not its specialized hardware.

Also interesting is the fact that Turing had a literary impulse (not often exercised), and wrote at least one semi-autobiographical short story about a sexual encounter. Only a few pages survive. Here is a paragraph quoted by Hodges:

Alec had been working rather hard until two or three weeks before. It was about interplanetary travel. Alec had always been rather keen on such crackpot problems, but although he rather liked to let himself go rather wildly to newspapermen or on the Third Programme when he got the chance, when he wrote for technically trained readers, his work was quite sound, or had been when he was younger. This last paper was real good stuff, better than he’d done since his mid twenties when he had introduced the idea which is now becoming known as ‘Pryce’s buoy’. Alec always felt a glow of pride when this phrase was used. The rather obvious double-entendre rather pleased him too. He always liked to parade his homosexuality, and in suitable company Alec could pretend that the word was spelt without the ‘u’. It was quite some time now since he had ‘had’ anyone, in fact not since he had met that soldier in Paris last summer. Now that his paper was finished he might justifiably consider that he had earned another gay man, and he knew where he might find one who might be suitable. (564)

The passage is striking for several reasons; but most obviously, it brings together the two leading themes of his life, his scientific imagination and his sexuality.

This biography of Turing reinforces for me the value of the genre more generally. The reader gets a better understanding of the important developments in mathematics and computing that Turing achieved, it presents a vivid view of the high stakes in the secret conflict that Turing was a crucial part of in the use of cryptographic advances to defeat the Nazi submarine threat, and it gives personal insights into the very unique individual who developed into such a world-changing logician, engineer, and scientist.

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