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John D Salt

Did units in WWII regularly resupply in action? Or did they pull out of the line to do it?

I can’t imagine anyone being allowed to take their unit out of the line just to replenish supplies; rest, refit and maintenance, yes, which is why armour usually goes back to leaguer every evening, but as (I think it was) John Weeks said, armour just rolls into action and then out again like visiting Martians, the infantry are the people who actually live at the sharp end.

Among the many popular misconfrabulations on the difference between WW1 and WW2 is the idea that infantry in WW1 were more subject to prolonged exposure in the forward areas than in WW2. On the Western Front, at least, not so; one of the advantages of trench warfare is that it lets you settle in to an organised routine, so units could be rotated out of the line fairly often. Under Petain’s “noria” system at Verdun, rotations were very frequent; this may have had the undesired effect of exposing more eople to the horrors of the sharp end than might otherwise have been the case, and had a much less beneficial effect on overall morale than was intended. At the other extreme, the exceedingly inhumane personnel policies in the US Army of WW2 meant that American infantrymen pretty much stayed in action until wounded or killed.

Anyhow, back to the replenishment question, the way the British Army manages this — and has since at least WW2 — is through a system of what it calls “echelons”, all of which form part of the supply and evacuation chain, as follows:

F echelon is the fighting element of the unit, the combat vehicles, fighting personnel and fire controllers. There is a pretty stern upper limit to the amount of supply that can be carried here. Three days’ rations is easy enough if you have a platoon truck, as the British always did from 1939, but a basic load of ammunition is something an infantryman can shoot away in five minutes if he’s a mind to, and it is hard to make the firing time last more than four times that. It takes longer to empty the basic load of a tank, but one of my Xmas presents (“The Tank Commander Pocket Manual 1939-1945”, Ruth Sheppard, Pool of London, 2016) contains a handy table drawn from FM 17-30 of 1942 which shows that the US light tank M3 and medium tanks M3 and M4 can sustain fire at the useable rate of their weapons for a period of 8 to 16 minutes, depending on the weapon. This means it is practically certain that you will need an ammo replen after one serious fight. Checking ammo and replenishing if necessary is a standard part of the humblest infantry section or platoon attack, and in my TA days a popular wrinkle was for the platoon sergeant to carry a 58 pack full of link and mags, ready to push this to the fire section as soon as a platoon attack started to develop (it’s embarrassing if your covering fire stops before you have got close enough to start the final assault).

A echelon is a logistic element that belongs to the unit (by which I mean battalion or (British) regiment, but highly-mechanized units will have sub-unit echelons). It is divided into two parts, A1 and A2 echelon. Roughly, A1 is responsible for immediate resupply, and follows up a tactical bound behind F echelon, ready to provide combat supplies at a moment’s notice. A2, following on behind, is responsible for recovery, and medical evacuation, so this is where one would expect to find the regimental aid post and vehicle casualty collection point. B echelon, probably in the brigade logistic area (“in the rear, with the beer”) is the place where administration and personnel (‘A’ matters in old army speak) are dealt with, as well as repair of vehicles backloaded from the vehicle casualty collection point.

When people talk of a unit holding (say) three days of supply (DOS) of ammunition, water, or whatever it might be, this does not mean that every fighting vehicle and rifle section soldier goes into action with three days’ worth of everything strapped to them; rather, there wil be 3 DOS spread throughout the F, A1, A2 and B echelons of a unit.

Unless your table’s really deep how do you model the rear areas?

Good question. Very good question. I like the WRG approach (I often like the WRG approach) of modelling off-table artillery batteries in a “table rear” area using smaller-scale models, with slips of paper indicating how far from the table baseline they are for purposes of adjudicating counter-battery fire. It occurs to mme that something similar could be done for the other support arms and services, perhaps using Phil Barker’s brilliant idea of “range batons” from his “Subs and SAMs” experimental naval rules. Some of a unit’s rear elements can be really quite a long way behind the fighting line — I recall when I was looking through the war diaries of the 21 AG units that fought at Villers-Bocage, one unit (I think the Sharpshooters, might have been RB) had elements of its echelon still back in Harwich at the time.

From the point of view of the miniaturist, this approach has the advantage that you don’t have to fork out so many good-looking spondulicks on unglamorous ‘B’ vehicles (which just means unarmoured, not associated with B echelon) if you have, say, an armoured regiment in 15mm and its logistic bits (other than A1 echelon, say half a dozen three-tonners) in 6mm.

From the point of view of the simulationist, this not only gives the support arms and services something to do in the course of a game, but it probably makes more sense of air support — most WW2 tactical wargames permit close air support of a much more intimate and precise nature than was ever possible in reality. The real benefit of those Stukas and Thunderjugs and Rockphoons (and even Hs-129s and Shturmoviki) over the battlefield is not panzer-pranging, it is blowing the bejasus out of ‘B’ vehicles trying to bring up the petrol and ammo. Similarly, the real intended use of armour (as distinct from tanks, in WW2 British army speak) is to zoom off the enemy baseline, and then have fun driving about the countryside shooting up petrol bowsers and ammo trucks.

Then of course there are a very few odd people who quite like the idea of having rules for logistics, because it can make for some nice resource-allocation puzzles.

As I think has been mentioned previously, I would prefer morale rules in WW2 tactical games to be based not so much on the historical reputation of a division, but more on how well-fed, well-rested, and well-supplied with dry socks and mail the troops are. There is good reason for the British Army to have taught “administration and morale” in the same set of lectures for many decades.

All the best,