British private armies

The Allies 1939-1945, and those fighting against Germany.

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Rodger Herbst
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British private armies

Post by Rodger Herbst » Sat Sep 24, 2011 6:08 am

does anyone know how many private armies were in the Brit armed forces in WW2?
From what ive read many British Generals weren't too happy the way they mutiplyed and sucked the best men out of the regular companies and they didn't make much differance in any outcome of any battle.
Anybody have any opinions or information?

Gary Kennedy
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Re: British private armies

Post by Gary Kennedy » Wed Sep 28, 2011 3:58 pm

Possibly the term 'armies' makes it sound much a bigger issue than was actually the case. By 1943 there was an undeniable proliferation of special units in the Med, most coming from units that had been formed in the Middle East/North Africa. Quick memory test -

Special Air Service
Special Boat Section, later Squadron
Demolition Squadron (aka Popski's Private Army)
Long Range Desert Group
Special Raiding Squadron
Raiding Support Regiment

Those are the ones I can recall offhand, sure I've missed a couple or three. While the list is quite long some of these units measured their strength in the few hundreds, so without going through the numbers in detail I reckon you'd find enough personnel from them all to fill out a single Infantry Brigade, or roughly 2500 men.

A constant argument against special forces was that they deprived the infantry especially of small unit leaders, Corporals and Serjeants, and therefore reduced the effectiveness of the infantry arm. The same criticism though was levelled at the Special Service (later Commando) Brigades, and to an extent also the Airborne Divisions. Airborne and Commando units and formations took a decent chunk of those men who might otherwise have found themselves in the infantry proper, and because their standards were more exacting and the Commandos were entirely volunteer (and selective), they tended to pick the best. But that's no different than what happened with German and US Airborne forces for example, though the British did sink a lot more resources into special units than I think anyone.

As to whether the large number of special units made a difference, that's probably down to individual interpretation. Generals commanding Corps and Armies probably think what they're doing is having the most direct impact on the campaign, and as ever want more personnel to increase that impact. Special forces advocates might offer that their activities are forcing the enemy to divert far more of his men to rear area security, large search and sweep operations to try and locate small teams of men, and in so doing doing are ensuring said Generals are facing fewer enemy troops. Also sustaining and operating large conventional formations in places like occupied Greece or the Balkans wasn't exactly a viable proposition, whereas as small specialised units, often working with resistance networks, proved doable. Whether it was worth the cost, again various views to be found.


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Re: British private armies - Chindits

Post by mconrad » Thu Oct 13, 2011 10:02 am

A real good case study of Private Armies might be the Chindits in Burma. The size was substantial compared to the amount of forces in theater - a brigade in 1943 and a division in 1944, plus the air support. There was something behind the term "Private" for the Chindits, as the commander, Orde Wingate, could go over the local commanding generals to the highest level in London.

Also interesting is that the men selected were not special. Certainly so for first Chindit in 1943 - a second-line above-average-age British battalion that just happened to be available. There was substantial weeding out during training, though, as well as in the hard school of the actual operations behind Japanese lines. There were also problems with the Gurkha component of first Chindit. The Gurkha battalion thrown in was new and lacked the cadre of British with the desired special training, skills, and experience. The community of Gurkha officers in the Indian army seemed to be strongly against Wingate's ideas, and considered that he "rotted out" the battalion he had been given for 1943.

Chindit historiography contains plenty of writings on trying to evaluate what the Chindits actually DID achieve in regard to military events in Burma. Note that even before first Chindit went in Wingate was telling a reporter that his goal wasn't a particular military objective, but to raise morale, to show that the British soldier could fight and win in the jungle against the Japanese. (It's reckoned that that particular goal was achieved.)

Afterwards, when Field Marshal Slim had the experiences of Imphal-Kohima, the two Chindit expeditions, and the reconquest of Burma behind him, he was of the opinion that setting aside part of the fighting force as special was a bad idea. Slim didn't actually condemn the long-range penetration mission of the Chindits, but he was adamant that any such special missions should be within the capability of any regular combat unit.

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