The BAOR in 1973: how bad was it?
I have previously posted the Swedish report from the BAOR trials of the strv 103, but at that time I only took the time to translate a few brief excerpts that I thought were funny. In this post, I’ll go into some more detail and discuss the reasons the Swedish delegation had such scathing things to say about the BAOR. It is somewhat bad form in military history circles to post anything that could be construed as negative towards another country’s armed forces, probably because military types tend to be hopeless nationalists. In this post, I will totally ignore that, which might insult a few people. I must therefore emphasize that these are not my own opinions.
As mentioned in the translated excerpts, during the basic training on the strv 103 in Sweden, the Swedes found British discipline to be rather lax, but more importantly the British gunnery skills were regarded as unacceptably bad in the first trial (after a re-trial, this was upgraded to a mere “poor”). While discipline is subjective, gunnery skills are objectively measurable, and it might be interesting to see how poor the full-time professional soldiers from 2nd RTR crews were compared to Swedish conscript standards.
The Swedish tank gunnery training regulations called for a maximum laying error of 0.2 mils against a stationary target (a number quite close to the mechanical precision of the laying system), and 0.8 and 0.4 mils respectively against a moving target (different numbers for different speeds). When taken as an “exam”, this was tested by firing 20 simulated rounds (using a camera mounted to the gun to judge laying). Each hit within the acceptable margin of error gave 2 points, but you could still get 1 point for a “near miss”. The passing grade and the goal for the conscript training was 39 points, while a “barely acceptable” grade was 30 points. In the first test, results were as follows:
After this less than impressive showing, the crews were made to evaluate their own scores (probably to shame them into taking the test seriously next time) and then the test was re-done, this time excluding the rear drivers since they normally wouldn’t be firing anyway. Results were much improved (except in the case of one gunner/driver who got barely acceptable in the first test but failed in the second), but still not up to Swedish conscript standard:
There was one commander who was not tested the first time around, hence the mismatch in numbers between the two rounds.
Results were even worse when it came to how long it took between a target showing up and the crew opening fire. Swedish training regulations called for no more than 17 seconds; the best British score was 18.5 seconds and the worst 36 seconds (mean: 28 seconds). This was not solely because of low crew standards, but rather because the British doctrine forbade the gunner/driver from acting on his own initiative: orders from the commander were always required for everything, and this slowed things down considerably.
The only trial in which the British crews were mostly up to par was target spotting (tested as a crew, not individually). The training regulations called for spotting 74% of targets on a standardized training course; the British crews achieved a mean of 72% (worst: 55%, best: 95%).
Considering the results above, it is not difficult to see why the Swedish observers wrote that “a large portion of the British gunners simply weren’t suited to their job”. Some of them wore glasses, which would have been an impossibility in the Swedish army: conscripts had to have perfect eyesight to even get considered for assignment as tank crews.
During the actual trials, the British crews complained about how much time they needed to spend on daily maintenance tasks. In a particularly acerbic comment, the observers concluded that this was mainly since on the Chieftain, crews usually took shortcuts on the maintenance if they bothered to do it at all, but on the strv 103 the contract with the Swedish army forced them to do it by the numbers. The observers also noted that the 1968 test report had concluded that the strv 103 needed less time for crew-serviced maintenance tasks than the Chieftain did.
In the public perception, conscripts tend to be viewed as poorly trained and motivated. However, as demonstrated here, the recruitment method used does not necessarily determine soldier quality. It is possible to train full time soldiers more and longer than conscripts, but this is not always done. Poor motivation and low morale can be found in both conscript and professional armies (Swedish conscript motivation varied over the years – for example, when the public perceived less of a threat to the country, motivation tended to be lower and morale was worse). Conscription also provides the opportunity to pick and choose the person best suited to the job out of all able bodied men (and women, these days) from each age class. It should be kept in mind though that this report was written at what was probably the very peak of the Swedish Cold War army: around the mid-1970’s, budgets started shrinking, refresher exercises were reduced and basic training periods were shortened. At the same time, these years were probably some of the worst for the British army.
By far the biggest beef the Swedish delegation had with British tactics was the very wide spread of tank formations. The observers complain in several places in the report that the British platoons could spread as far as 5-600 meters on the offense, and up to 800 meters on the offense. In part, this friction was caused by doctrinal differences. Swedish tank platoons were, as per the field manuals, assigned front sections no more than 150-200 meters wide – a British platoon could cover the same width as an entire Swedish tank company did when attacking in line formation (see graphic). The Swedish school of tanking was heavily German-inspired, with schwerpunkt and auftragstaktik and all, so concentrating forces was essential to the tank formation commanders. This is perhaps best illustrated with a few choice quotes from the 1966 field manual for Swedish armored battalions (the bold parts are in the original).
1:17 Our armored units must be prepared to meet enemy units that are superior to ours in various ways, for example in the number of tanks. Our units shall compensate for this superiority by mastering suitable tactics and ways to do battle.
1:19 The firepower, mobility, ability to pass difficult terrain and armor protection of the armored units shall be used for quick and surprising attacks with concentrated forces.
1:20 (…) When encountering the enemy unexpectedly, the armored units shall seek the initiative and attack as soon as possible to reach success. (…)
1:24 Fire and maneuver are the two main components of battle. They must be coordinated in both time and space.
Fire – especially tank gun, anti-tank gun and artillery fire – is the most important component of the battle for the armored units. The fire is complemented by the use of smoke.
1:27 The opportunity to create local superiority must be exploited whenever possible. Local superiority is mainly created by concentrating the fire from tank and anti-tank guns and artillery, as well as by the use of smoke.
When fighting enemy armored units, it is not just merely the number of weapons that determine local superiority. The unit that is first to open fire and shows the smallest target is usually the one that succeeds. Quick and well-aimed fire is of crucial importance.
Local superiority shall be used opportunistically both for anti-tank work and to neutralize the enemy anti-tank units.
1:28 Concentration of force means that sufficient resources, especially fire, are focused in time and space.
Concentration shall be brought about in the direction or in the area where a decisive result is sought or expected. In other directions, the weakest possible resources are assigned.
The concentration of force is usually achieved though coordination of several different units.
In many cases, assembling several companies in a relatively small area is required for the concentration to be effective. Before the battle is started, however, they shall be gathered for as short a time as possible, so the enemy does not have time to deploy nuclear weapons against them.
When assembling an armored battalion, two or more companies should not be assembled for more than an hour.
In a crisis, focusing fire – especially tank gun, anti-tank gun and artillery fire – usually the quickest way to turn the situation around to our favor.
2:2 The fighting actions of armored units usually develop quickly and violently, with frequent and sudden changes in the situation. Frictions are a constant. A commander must be able to quickly find his bearings in every kind of situation. Even with limited intelligence and in the most difficult of positions, he must be prepared to make crucial decisions and carry them through.
For a commander, indecisiveness and failure to act is a greater failing than choosing the wrong means of action.
2:11 In war, only simple things are possible. Straightforward plans, well executed, are the safest path to success.
These passages (particularly 1:28) should be enough to give at least an overview of the Swedish doctrine: focusing fire (both tank gun and artillery fire) from good positions and concentrating forces in small areas were seen as crucial components of success. Contrary to what you might think, Swedish armor officers were doctrinally very aggressive and taught to attack in almost every situation to gain and retain initiative. Concentration of force and especially of fire was seen as absolutely essential on all levels, and the observers complain a lot about how the Brits don’t do this, or don’t do it enough (the wide deployments usually prevent focusing fire within the platoon).
These complains are, of course, a lot more subjective than gunnery trials, but the observers note a number of tactical situations from the exercises that seem to confirm their view that the British habit of deploying tanks 3-400 meters from each other isn’t appropriate, which brings us to the next section.
During the trials (both the fixed situations intended to compare the strv 103 and the Chieftain and the bigger field exercise), the observers noted many behaviors that seemed odd or downright bizarre. As mentioned, one of these was the great width used within British platoons. In several of the fixed situation trials (especially on the defense) this led one of the tanks on either flank getting isolated, overrun and destroyed. Focusing fire was rarely possible, which led to most situations ending up as duels. In one of the trials, the observers note the entire thing as “a great example of how this type of battle should not be fought”.
Another common complaint is poor coordination in general but especially poor coordination with infantry. In several cases the British tanks advance on their own into and through forests. In at least one case, tanks advancing along a narrow forest road together with infantry on foot does not use the infantry to scout the sides of the road or ahead, leading to the tanks driving out into an intersection where there’s an enemy tank in ambush. The infantry is not called upon to locate the enemy tank even after the first tank in the column gets destroyed. This was seen as bizarre by the Swedish observers, who in many similar situations in forests etc called for dismounting the rear driver and using him for observation on foot.
The infantry itself was complimented on showing “very good fighting spirit”, “likely because the company had just returned from Northern Ireland”, but its way of fighting was considered odd at best. In one trial where six tanks (deployed in firing positions) and a dismounted mechanized infantry platoon defend a few buildings against six tanks and three APC’s, the following observation is a good illustration of what the observers thought:
1. All 103’s in firing position at the start of the exercise.
2. APC’s advance. All the commanders in “peace driving mode” with their heads above the edge of the hatches. The APC’s drive up in a column, stops 50 meters in front of [a defending tank]. Infantry dismounts. Pure madness!
3. When the infantry attacks from the right, [the defending tank] turns the entire vehicle and fires with the fixed machine guns, without turning the cupola and opening fire with the commander’s MG first.
An older German local gentleman (retired officer?) came up and asked if you really could do things this way.
Artillery and smoke were used sparingly if at all during the field exercise, despite artillery officers and forward observers being attached. The observers complained much about how there was no concentration of fire in that respect either, nor any coordination of fire and maneuver to speak of. There were also several complaints about passivity in general – tanks sit still in prepared positions despite being attacked without seeing the attacker, that sort of thing. In many cases the observers also complained about what was seen as blatantly incorrect behavior, like advancing a tank column into an ambush without recon.
I’ll just post a translated excerpt from the report here.
(1) Armored vehicle (Chieftain, FV 432) reliability seems quite low. When there are no exercises ongoing, the vehicles are test driven once a week. When units or parts of units leave for service in Cyprus or Ireland or for exercises in Canada, a minor detachment is always left behind to service and check on the vehicles.
When the armored vehicles are parked in their garages, they are not filled with ammunition or the crew’s combat equipment, as is done at f.ex. American units.
(2) Since units and parts of units that are assigned to the BAOR are in service on Cyprus, in Ireland or are on exercises in f.ex. Canada, the forces present in Germany likely have a relatively low readiness as a fighting unit. Additionally, personnel is more or less constantly transferred between units, so the units are likely rather poorly trained as a team.
(3) Each year, units typically do about two weeks of exercises in Soltau, two weeks of gunnery training in Bergen Hone and one bigger field exercise/maneuver in the Kassel area. The rest of the year the personnel seems to spend their time mostly idle in their barracks. Every second or every third year, the units are sent to Canada where live fire exercises and combat exercises are done.
Alert response exercises are done about once a month. No such exercise was done during the current period.
(4) Considering the state of the equipment, the constant detaching of units, the circulation of personnel and what has been noted in other places in this report regarding the skills of commanders and crews, as well as what officials have told us about alcohol and drug problems, the British Army of the Rhine should not be seen as being of any higher class.
(My underlining in the last paragraph.)