21 April 2020 – Berlin 75: The City is not Neutral

Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945. (BU 8573) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196781

Berlin 75: The City is not Neutral

Written by Colonel Al McCluskey, Assistant Head CHACR.

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.

Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the Soviet Army’s break into metropolitan Berlin, when Lt Gen Krivosheina’s 1st Mechanized Corps breached the city’s Outer-Defence-Ring and secured the north-eastern suburb of Weißensee. As such it seems apposite to comment on the article from Professor David Betz and Lt Col Hugo Stanford-Tuck we included in our Newsletter last week (CHACR Take Away Newsletter Issue 4 dated 15 Apr 20) suggesting that cities were a ‘neutral’ environment for warfare in the 21st Century. This callsign disagrees.

The ‘Neutral’ argument is based on assertion that modern Western Armies – particularly the British Army – are hidebound by a risk-averse character that is exposed by the challenges of operating in cities. To a large extent, the argument believes that this is the result of poor use of history that focusses on examples of urban combat that are too few in number and too exceptional in their context to be useful.  Betz and Stanford-Tuck further suggest that if this conservative approach can be overcome, through better training, delivered in bigger and more technically advanced urban warfare training estate, and the confident delegation of authority and control to lower command levels, urban warfare can be conducted in a far more productive and successful manner.

The assertion that cities are neutral is flawed on three counts. First, it ignores the importance of ‘human terrain’. The ‘Neutral’ argument rests on the extension of Spencer-Chapman’s seminal book, ‘The Jungle is Neutral’ written as a memoir of his wartime exploits in the Far-East. In short, the environmental difficulties equally apply to all sides. This is absolutely true in physical terrain terms. But cities and jungles are different. Jungles are a natural environment that would exist if there were no humans on the face of the planet. Cities are exactly the opposite; they only exist because of human agency and therefore they are invested with human meaning at all levels, shot through with ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’. And this profoundly shapes our conduct of warfare within them. Second, it ignores the importance of the spaces ‘in-between’. Cities are not self-sustaining entities. They consume more than they produce and therefore they must be sustained from outside. Control the hinterland – or at least prevent the opposition from controlling it – and you will retain some freedom of action in the city for a subsequent operation. Third, the argument has limitations in its selective use of history.

Take Berlin for example. This city was replete with meaning for all adversaries in the Second World War. Above all other cities in Germany, it was the cultural home of the German national power. The Nazis knew this and that is why they developed their grandiose plans for monumental architecture of ‘Germania’ as the capital of the ‘new’ German Reich. This gave it a deeply political meaning and made it a strategic target throughout the war; just witness the vehement debates in 1945 about which Allied army should have the privilege of capturing it. Its why Hitler chose to stay there in 1945 and it why the war began to conclude on his death. Similarly, along with the Ruhr and Silesia, it was the economic heart of Germany. It housed the industries and the working classes that powered the Nazi war-machine. This made its defence critical to provide Germany the means necessary to continue the fight. This reinforced its relevance as a strategic target for the Allies as it had throughout the war, although this was becoming somewhat academic by April 1945.

More importantly these two factors converged to allow the Nazis to radicalize the wider population. From their accession to power in 1933, their security apparatus used the city to terrorize the ethnic and political ‘other’ and cow the remainder into submission. This outcome was reinforced by the knowledge that vengeance was approaching from the east. The atrocity and counter-atrocity character of warfare on the Eastern Front ensured the German population knew the widespread reprisals that were surely coming their way. This point is underlined by the fact that approximately half of the 5 million German war dead, lost their lives after 20 July 1944, a point in time when the final outcome was no longer in doubt. There was very little space for neutrals when the price of neutrality was a prison cell or arbitrary execution from either side, or widespread rape from the enemy.

If Betz and Stanford-Tuck underestimate the relevance of the human terrain, they also stumble into their own trap of ‘poor history’ with the assertion that urban warfare compresses the strategic, operational and tactical levels of war, to the extent that some trusty YOs and NCOs can deliver victory if only we would let them get on with it. They are right that we concentrate too much on too few battles, but a common theme for many urban engagements is the critical importance of the urban hinterland. Although the Battle for Berlin commenced when the Soviets broke into the city on 21 April 1945, their main effort for the next four days was the completion of the encirclement of the city. The Soviets well knew the danger of an urban battle in which the defender could trickle reinforcements and resupply into the city. Only once they had separated Berlin from the Ninth Army in Halbe, the Third Panzer Army at Stettin and the Twelfth Army on the Elbe, could the urban battle accelerate with the foregone result concluded at a much more tolerable cost.

The importance of the space between cities was even present in the Western Front example of Aachen. This battle is used by Betz and Stanford-Tuck to assert the utility of a smaller, better trained and motivated force to overcome superior numbers in an urban engagement. Key to this is the iconic battle fought by two battalions of the US 26th Infantry Regiment during their assault on the 5,000 defenders of the 246th Volksgrenadier Division in October 1944. This numerical slight-of-hand neglects the prioritization by the US First Army and VII Corps to encircle and isolate the city from German reinforcement from the east. Even then, once this encirclement was achieved, the two battalions of the 26th were reinforced for the final attack by 300 P-38s and P-47s of IX Tactical Air Command, a battalion of tanks and a battalion of armoured infantry from 3(US) Division and a battalion of infantry from 1(US) Division.  The Battle of Aachen can teach us many lessons, but the efficacy of a small force in urban environments is not necessarily one of them.

Ultimately, while the ‘City is Neutral’ argument contains several good ideas that need to be further explored, such as the development of more effective training environments, its underlying premise is deeply flawed. The physical terrain and the human terrain are inextricably linked in the urban environment and this fact cannot be ignored. Instead of pouring all our energy into improving how we fight in cities in the physical sense – and viewing the conflict in a binary ‘friend v foe’ paradigm – we should work harder to ensure we understand the perspective of the people who live within them. This will allow us to accurately understand the character of the problem we face and develop an appropriate response. It will also expose the level of permission we will have to operate – and therefore the tactical freedom of action that will be extended to us – should the military be the necessary instrument of effect.  And if we do choose ‘force’ to execute our strategic policy in the cities of the future, we should not lose sight of the importance of the hinterland spaces in-between them. These are too often overlooked as we continue to ‘look-in’ rather than ‘look-around’. Just ask the inhabitants of Berlin.