Book Summary: “Closing With the Enemy” by Michael D. Doubler

Closing with the Enemy

Title: Closing With the Enemy: How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945
Author: Michael D. Doubler
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The author seeks to understand how the US Army learned and adapted within the context of the geography and enemy tactics of the European Theater of World War II.

My Comments

It is my belief that one of the principle forces for change in human societies is when groups of people compete against other groups of people.
Competition between groups force greater cooperation and trust within those groups, the learning of new skills and the adoption of new technology and social organizations. Without the conflict between groups, the individuals would have been far less likely to change.

The field of battle between two militaries is one of the best examples of this process.

Key Take-aways

  • Learning and adaptation are key components of victory in war. A military can only be so prepared in peacetime. They must adapt rapidly to survive while they are fighting in war..
  • The rate at which a military learns is a key determinate in which army wins a battle and a war.
  • The US Army in 1942 was inexperienced, with poor weaponry, deficit strategy and tactics and unaccustomed to much of the terrain and weather in Europe.
  • By late 1945 the US Army had adapted into a lethal fighting force, overwhelming one of the greatest armies in world history: the German Army of World War II.
  • The US Army did this through decentralized experimentation, lateral dissemination of lessons learned among junior officers, retraining in small groups and the adoption of better weaponry, communication and logistics.
  • Each type of geography that they confronted – desert, beaches, bocage, forests, rivers, cities – forced the US Army go through this process of experimentation, dissemination, retraining and deployment.

Important Quotes from Book

One of the great lessons American soldiers had to learn in World War II was the need for an integrated approach to fighting. Rather than relying on either infantry, tanks, artillery, or air power alone to get the job done, the American army discovered it could win battles only by using all available manpower and material resources in coordinated combined arms operations—the tactics and techniques used by a force composed of two or more of the basic combat arms of infantry, artillery, and armor.

The eminent British military historian Michael Howard once argued that an army’s peacetime military doctrine is usually wrong because military leaders, unlike other professionals, have no sure method of testing or verifying their doctrines and practices short of combat, but it is not important whether or not an army has its doctrine and tactics perfected at the beginning of a war as long as they are not fundamentally flawed. What is crucial is an army’s ability to perfect its doctrine and tactics as quickly as possible after the shooting starts. Victory belongs to the army that can learn from its mistakes and adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment.

The American army was successful because it proved itself capable of quickly adapting to new and sometimes unexpected circumstances. An unusual variety of challenges faced the U.S. combined arms team. The German army generally fought on the defensive.

The combined arms team also had to overcome problems in its own training, equipment, and organization.

Implementing change in the midst of war is a complex process that is related to almost every function a military institution performs. In order for an army to adapt effectively on the battlefield, it must consider its own doctrine, organization, training, tactics, weapons, and soldiers.

The practices the German, Soviet, and American armies used to implement change reveal the heavy influence of societal values on battlefield adaptation. The Germans in World War I and the Soviets in the Great Patriotic War used centralized, formal techniques and channels of communication to facilitate adaptation. The Americans in the ETO during World War II used a more informal approach that eschewed centralized control. The Europeans preferred directed changes from above, while U.S. forces encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit that sought ideas from any credible source.

The raising and deployment of major field forces was a project almost without precedent that sometimes defied central planning or succeeded in spite of it. If architects drawing plans for the Pentagon sometimes fell behind construction workers, so too did the military staffs that eventually occupied the monster headquarters building fail to keep pace with what was going on in the overseas theaters. One of the major reasons American soldiers did well in World War II is that when they faced unexpected challenges on the battlefield, they needed little guidance from higher headquarters on what to do. Soldiers were quick to learn, adapt, and improvise and to get on with the fighting. Construction workers did not need completed blueprints from architects to finish the Pentagon, and neither did American soldiers require much guidance from their superiors on the best ways to go about defeating the enemy.

The army’s problem-solving processes had a number of common characteristics. First, the army put no restrictions on the source of new ideas, and contributions came from enlisted ranks, officers, and generals alike.

The army promoted initiative and problem solving at the lowest level. Rarely dictating the use of new tactics or ways to employ weapons, corps, army, and army group headquarters instead provided subordinate units with ideas and information and then held subordinate commanders responsible for getting things done. Commanders incapable of overcoming the enemy or resolving internal problems usually did not last long. All innovations and ideas shared the same purpose—to inflict maximum damage on the Germans while minimizing U.S. casualties and getting the war over with as quickly as possible.

If the army excelled in tactical and technical improvisation, it performed equally well in disseminating new ideas and lessons learned. Formal and informal channels carried information between units. Within battalions and regiments, new ideas probably traveled best by word of mouth. Divisions constantly produced training bulletins to get information to soldiers on methods and techniques that worked well in battle. They also published elaborate training memoranda, complete with diagrams and explanatory notes, telling subordinate commanders how to train and implement new tactics.

At army level and higher, the sharing of lessons learned became more structured. Almost from the beginning, higher headquarters gave subordinate units as much information as they could on successful tactical methods. First Army published a series of “Battle Experiences” in Normandy. Each report was a few pages in length and contained succinct advice on German defensive tactics and the lessons Americans were learning on the battlefield.

The highest echelons of command took a great interest in gathering and distributing battlefield lessons. AGF Headquarters used a wide network of combat observers to gather information for the War Department on the performance of troops and equipment. The information helped to link together divisions fighting overseas with the War Department, the army’s schools system, and units training for overseas deployment. By the end of the war AGF observers in Europe had sent back over 1,500 reports filled with the details of combat in the Mediterranean and European theaters.

Tactical adaptation, technical innovation, the dissemination of lessons learned, and experience allowed the army to achieve unparalleled levels of professional competence. As the separate combat arms learned to use their own weapons and tactics more effectively, improvements in combined arms operations significantly enhanced the army’s combat power.

To compare the performance of units in North Africa with the battles in the Ardennes is to analyze the actions of two very different armies.

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