We Must Attack to Win

by Cy Caldwell

Successes of aggressive foes demonstrate that a nation on the defensive already is halfway along the road to defeat.

We are well on the way toward losing this war. Not only the opening battles already lost, but the whole war. We can win — but only if our political and military leaders discard their outmoded policy of defense and assume the offensive somewhere. To remain on the defensive everywhere, as we and the British have been doing, is to be strong nowhere. Something must be boldly risked if anything is to be gained.

In two and a half years of war the nations fighting against Germany and Japan have not won a single victory that resulted in any important territorial gain. Knocking some thoroughly fed-up Italians out of an obscure African colony is a barren victory. As for the much heralded and applauded Russian counteroffensive, it has resulted only in the recapture of a small part of Russia's conquered territory. The German armies are stopped for the time being; but German military might has not been seriously weakened. In fact, Russian losses of men and material probably counterbalance German losses. Does anyone doubt that by Spring the Germans again will be on the move, even if with somewhat less confidence than in 1941?

British and American war thinking has been based upon a Maginot Line psychology: sit down behind defensive works and await the enemy's arrival. That is a very old theory of warfare, invented originally by the Chinese, an ancient civilized people, generally averse to fighting through 5,000 years of their history. The Great Wall of China is a massive fortification, 1,400 miles long, the greatest and most monumental expression of the absolute faith of the Chinese in walls; a faith as strong as that of the French in the Maginot Line, or of the English in their little Chinese wall at Singapore or Gibraltar. The very words "national defense" connote sitting down and waiting to be attacked — which is precisely what we did for two years while Europe was falling to pieces under the sledge hammer blows of active German might. A nation on the defensive is half way along the road to defeat, as every nation in Europe has demonstrated. Victories in this war have been won only by attack. Even the air defense of Britain in the Fall of 1940, while it was basically a defensive action, succeeded only because the RAF vigorously attacked invading German bombers and fighters.

For the past six months I have been speaking to audiences in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Connecticut. In these months I have seen the American people change from easy complacency up to Pearl Harbor, to indignation after it, and recently to genuine concern and even alarm. There is still, however, a strong belief in what I might term the American version of the Maginot Line — the American war production line. This faith in the military value of things not yet produced leads many to discount the war now going on and to pin their hopes on the war that will be going on in 1943 and 1945, when we at last have enough of everything, so we can take the offensive. This peculiar American thinking is a counterpart of the fatuous English belief that "England loses every battle but the last one," ignoring the disquieting thought that nobody knows in advance which will be the last battle.

If, for example, the Germans this Spring or next Summer successfully invade Ireland by air, landing enough troops, tanks, artillery and supplies to maintain their hold on that island, then, in that one operation, they will have put a cork in the bottleneck of sea transportation, which alone is keeping England in the war. England is on scanty rations now; what will be her position if the Atlantic supply line is cut, not only from the United States but from India, Africa and the British Empire and South America? If that happens, England will be starved out of the war this year. And that it can happen was demonstrated in Crete and in Norway.

Japanese gains in the Far East have been so spectacular and impressive that they have diverted our attention from the transportation battle of the Atlantic. But on the outcome of that battle depends the fate of Britain and the British Fleet, which is based on England. A navy, like an air force, is land-based. The air and the sea resemble the great deserts over which men may pass but in which they cannot sustain life. Air and naval bases may be compared to oases in the desert of air and sea.

British sea power and air power are based on and are supplied by England. If England falls to an invader, or if its supplies from the world are cut off, its great Navy becomes practically a derelict on the oceans. It cannot be supplied, repaired, added to, and kept in action only by the United States, whose dry dock and ship-building facilities are so largely occupied with its own building program. England itself, and the English military and industrial population, form the keystone of the arch which is British fighting power. If that keystone is knocked out by actual invasion or by gradual starvation, then all British war power collapses and Britain must sue for peace.

Let's examine this problem, which has been withheld due to the secrecy policy of the British and American governments — a policy that I fear has lulled us into a false sense of security. As you know, there have been no published statements of shipping tonnage losses since last summer. But before the veil was drawn we were told that shipping losses ran to 5,000,000 tons a year. Their present rate is anybody's guess.

In 1917, before the US entered the war, German submarines were based only in Germany and Belgium and had to run the gauntlet of the North Sea to the English Channel. The British Navy then was assisted by the French and Italian navies, which had a total of some 500 destroyers, many of which could be delegated to convoy duty when that system finally was introduced. Today the French Navy is immobilized — at least so far — and the Italian Navy fights for Germany. The Germans base their submarines from the coast of Norway to the north coast of Spain, and probably Dakar in Africa. The submarine, a nearly blind creature in 1917, now has the eyes of the German long-range patrol bomber. It also has longer cruising range, greater hitting power in its torpedoes and it hunts in packs. In April, 1917, according to Lloyd George's memoirs, the British were brought to within six weeks of virtual starvation by the submarine alone. Is England's position any more secure today? It would not seem so. Today, planes sink a quarter of all tonnage.

Where in 1917 and 1918 destroyers and armed merchantmen were considered sufficient convoy protection, today battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers are needed to protect convoys and guard against raids by heavy units of the German fleet, such as the Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Incidentally, it is an enlightening comment on the accuracy of high-altitude bombing to note that the RAF rained bombs on those two battleships in 110 raids, yet the ships finally steamed away and, escorted by German fighter planes,successfully braved the passage of the English Channel.

The lack so far of any large-scale US naval action against Japanese forces in the Far East may be explained in part by the necessity to bolster British sea power in the Atlantic and thus keep the supply line open, and keep England in the war. Furthermore, the distressingly small British forces available for the defense of Singapore — while they may be blamed in part upon lack of shipping space and equipment, or lack of a correct estimate of the situation beforehand — are more probably due to what I term English defense-mindedness. Feeling themselves too weak to attack anywhere, except in Libya where they chased and caught the Italians (then were chased by the Germans, whom they in turn chased but failed to tag) the English have all along played a waiting game — waiting for the United States to get into the war. This policy of waiting, of holding grimly to as much as possible while letting go what could not be held, was forced upon the British by their numerical inferiority in men and equipment on the ground and in the air. Furthermore, the ever-present fear of a German invasion — if not of England itself, then of Ireland — has held large forces of men in England, and probably will continue to do so for as long as the war lasts. The English have, in fact, built a psychological Chinese wall around themselves and their little island. Whatever else falls, that must be saved, or all is lost, and lost at one blow.

Thus when we speak of taking the offensive, let us not delude ourselves as to who chiefly is going to take that offensive; it must be ourselves and Russia. The British, with smaller forces everywhere except on the sea, and handicapped by having a large population on a small island, have displayed wonderful courage and determination merely in hanging on. They could not have done that without our help in supplying them and also in our helping to get those supplies across the Atlantic and to Africa. Now we must realize that if the British are to attack anywhere it can only be in concert with strong American and Russian forces attacking at the same time. Victory, in the future as in the past, will go only to the attacker. But if in 1942 the Germans and Japanese continue to attack, while the United Nations continue only to defend — until they are ready for the offensive in 1943 or later — they may wake up to find that the war has been lost.

The delusion of sea power as a strangling force still beclouds British and American minds. In 1918 it worked, but it did not bring victory, which was won at last only by armies on the ground. Today sea power carries out its historic role, but with ever-lessening success — and for the obvious reason that German and Japanese land and air forces have won vast territories and captured a wealth of raw materials, and also of human labor in mines and factories, all of which now aids the German-Japanese war effort. The enemy has not been weakened by his war effort; he has been strengthened by the capture of land and people. It is true that lengthening supply lines and the immobilization of armed forces to keep captured countries in subjection has a weakening effect upon Germany and Japan, as have their losses in men and material. But their opponents also have lost, not only men and materials, but land itself and the productive capacities of the conquered nations. With Malaya, Siam, French Indo-China and the Netherlands Indies already in their bag, the Japanese now have the oil, tin, rubber, rice, cotton, human labor and other essentials they require to wage a long war. They also, like the Germans, have a production line of young men to replace the wastage in their forces.

If the position of the United Nations seems critical today, the position of Germany is scarcely less so. The position of Japan, on the contrary, is excellent. Japan already is in Burma and has cut the Burma Road. Soon she will be moving on to India and Australia — a move on her part inevitable after the fall of Java. What we can do to help Australia I don't know. The British have lost Singapore, which means that the keystone of our joint defense in the Far East has been knocked out. British and American strategy lies in ruins. We never had enough force, or had it in time. Shall we let Australia go, or shall we defend it? Or can we defend it? Even if we succeed, we still are only on the defensive; still only doing a holding operation. If we have only enough to hold Australia, and yet not enough to smash Japanese naval and military strength, is it not better to give up that defensive strategy and go full out in the one place where we have a chance of knocking out our strongest opponent, Germany?

Let's look at the German problem. It is basically a problem of oil supply. The Germans cannot keep their war machine rolling and the factories of Europe functioning to turn out war material of all kinds unless they can add to their diminishing oil reserves. They need 2,000,000 tons a month; they produce only a million tons a month, mostly from Rumanian wells, which are becoming exhausted. Rumania produced nearly 9,000,000 tons a year in 1937, produced perhaps 5,000,000 tons in 1941. The German oil position is critical. Therefore it is obvious that Germany must move this Spring and Summer into the Caucasus or into Iraq and Iran, or all three. Their policy must be to defeat the Russian armies or, failing that, to hold the line in the east while they move south to gain the needed oil. If they move through Turkey and Syria they can drive the British out of the Eastern Mediterranean; and at the same time German mechanized and air forces in Libya would move against Egypt, completing a pincer movement. Thus it would appear that the most critical battlefield for 1942 lies in that theater. If the Germans are to be stopped, they must be stopped before they gain that oil. Thus the one logical theater for a Russian-American-British offensive lies in Persia, Iraq, Syria.

It is not enough merely to hold those countries, to occupy them and keep the Germans out. They must be used as a base for operations against the German army. We must stop thinking in terms of places to be held, which is a defensive form of thinking. We must start at once to think in terms of movement, of pushing forward against the real objective — which is the military machine of Germany. That machine must be denied oil, as the first essential move; and then it must be smashed. There is no other way of winning the war.

What is the British position in that region? It is extremely weak. If the Germans capture Turkey and Syria and reinforce their Libyan forces, and if they hurl large air armies into the operation — as they naturally would do — the British Mediterranean fleet will have to pack up and get out of there, evacuating the remnants of the British forces in Egypt. The British can't hold alone, for in over two years of war they have won only over the Italians, and are `checkmated now by the Germans in Libya. Add a full scale German invasion through Turkey, and the British would be defeated. Russia and the United States must come to their rescue, or lose the war.

If Hitler accomplishes his objective and wins the Mediterranean and the oil-producing countries, and if the Japanese move through Burma and India and link up with the Germans, then Russia and China are in concentration camps, so far as aid from us is concerned. They could not last indefinitely against a victorious Germany and Japan, with their greater industrial capacities and their stronger military power. Thus it seems to me that the war will be won or lost this year, not in 1945.

If the Germans and Japanese are victorious, and if Britain at last is by starvation or lack of other materials unable to continue the war, the Germans and the Japs could sit on their gains and say to us, "If you want to defeat us, come and get us." And how would we do that? We couldn't, once the British had lost the only bases from which we could operate and where our ships could dock.

To defeat the United States it would not be necessary for Germany and Japan to attack this country — although they undoubtedly would do that. They could let us sit here, a large economic island of high wages and high prices, unable to compete in world markets against Germany and Japanese slave labor. We could build 185,000 airplanes, 50,000 tanks and a two-ocean navy — and go broke doing it, and end sooner or later in economic collapse and national disintegration. If we wanted to trade with the world, we would probably have to fight naval engagements on all the seas. And what would we use as bases, once we had left our own shores and outlying islands? If the Germans got Egypt and Africa, they would be nearer to South America than we are. And South American nations, told they could trade their agricultural products for European manufactured goods at half the cost of the same things from the United States, would fall into the German-Japanese economic block.

We had better face the facts, and stop waiting for American production lines to swing into high gear. We may have enough when it's too late to use it anywhere, except right here at home, in a last ditch stand. You notice how smart these Germans and Japs are? They fight the war in other peoples' countries. We should do the same, lest at the end we are forced to fight it here at home. And all alone.

Just a postscript on air power. That's another cherished American illusion — thousands of bombers raining destruction on the foe. Air power will win the war— so the prophets tell us. Well, we can lose for lack of air power, but we'll never win with that alone. Ignore entirely the problem of getting it there, which I took up last month in discussing sea power. Suppose it's there, where we need it, in Iraq or Persia or Syria or Turkey. You still need an army on the ground to hold the bases. You need tanks and artillery and infantry. The Japs have demonstrated that in the Philippines, in Malaya, in the Netherlands Indies. Sea and air forces supported Japanese infantry, slogging along on their flat feet; the infantry won the final battles and occupied the ground.

Air, sea and land power are the three legs of the military stool. Lacking one of these legs a nation may fall to the ground. The Germans have lacked sea power, but are doing pretty well with undersea forces. Besides, they selected the land as their battlefield, and have won there with armies and air power. The British, depending chiefly on sea power, and having only a small army, have everywhere been driven from the land, when attacked, except in Egypt and England. Russia, choosing her battlefield, had land and air forces, and did well with them. But lacking sea power, the Germans and Japanese have Russia nearly bottled up. We, like the British, depended mainly on sea power. But where in the world do we go with it when Japanese land power has captured the British base at Singapore, and German land and air power may take the English bases in the Mediterranean?

Do our political leaders understand the gravity of our situation? I doubt it, or they'd stop strikes, cut Government red tape, cut out wasting our substance on nonessentials, stop coddling the farmers and every other pressure group — and stop playing politics. Our Government in 1942 bears a disquieting resemblance to that of France in the Spring of 1940. For France, it was the last Spring as a free people. Now it's the Spring of 1942. And we're still free. Whether we remain free depends chiefly upon ourselves and what fighting we do in 1942.

This article was originally published in the May, 1942, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 30, no 5, pp 41-42, 73-74.
The original article includes a thumbnail portrait of the author.
Photo is not credited.