War and food

From January to May 1942, 5500 German troops were isolated near the town of Kholm, between Moscow and Leningrad, cut off by the Russian Army. It was the worst winter for a century. At – 22°F (-30°C), the German soldiers, frost-bitten and lice-ridden, huddled in their foxholes in the frozen ground, praying for relief.

Suddenly they heard the distant murmur of engines, which rose to a roar as 20 Junkers Ju-52 transports, escorted by two squadrons of Messerschmitt fighters, swept overhead. The sky filled with scores of parachutes falling with crates of food, ammunition and medical supplies.

For more than three months the air-drops continued, enabling the beleaguered Germans to hold off the Red Army’s repeated assaults. On May 5, German tanks managed to batter their way through to the besieged troops from the west. The Kholm Pocket had survived, thanks to good logistic support.

Logistics – the ability to supply a fighting force with food, ammunition and equipment – has always been an essential element in the art of war. And in modern warfare, successful attack or defence depends more than ever on continuous and rapid re-supply.

A modern heavy division of about 16,000 men and 1000 armoured vehicles engaged in combat will use at least 5000 tons of ammunition and 2700 tons of fuel every day. In Vietnam, by late 1968, the Americans were supplying more than 1,300,000 men, including South Vietnamese and troops of other nations. An average of 760,000 tons of supplies arrived, mainly by sea, each month.

Without this logistic lifeblood, an army dies. Napoleon’s adage that ‘an army marches on its stomach’ is as true now as it ever was. The inability of the Red Army to withstand Hitler’s invasion in 1941 was partly due to its inadequate supply system. Front-line troops had to fetch their own supplies from depots in the rear. Stalin ended that system in June 1943.

The Japanese failed to take Imphal and Kohima, on the Indo-Burmese border, in 1944 partly because they did not have the supplies. When the British and Indians advanced, they found starved Japanese corpses with grass in their mouths.

Massive US troop movement

The problems of arranging for new supplies are formidable, as a US military exercise, Reforger 87, showed in September 1987.

The exercise involved the largest movement overseas of US Army forces in peacetime. The 35,000 men of III Armored Corps based at Fort Hood, Texas, were to be sent to West Germany, as if they were reinforcing their Allied colleagues at the outbreak of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

The troops and all their equipment were scattered over 30 American states in active and reserve units. The troops were flown or driven to the US airfields, and then all 35,000 men were flown to airfields in Europe. They were then taken by road and rail either to depots where they were supplied with NATO equipment, or to ports where they received heavy equipment that had been brought by ship across the Atlantic.

It takes four days longer to carry equipment across the Atlantic by sea in fast merchantmen than by air, so pre-positioned NATO equipment was essential for the first troops.

The Corps then moved to its staging area near Munster and Osnabruck. From there, two days later, each of the two divisions and supporting brigades moved to a tactical assembly area nearby for refuelling and reprovisioning (in war, this would also include new supplies of ammunition). From the time they were called up to the time they were in their fighting positions took no more than a week.

Today’s armies are ever more complex, and the need for speed ever increasing. Computers can pass on requests instantaneously. Urgent supplies can be flown in by helicopter or STOL (shorttake-off-and-landing) transports. In a future war, supertankers, nuclear-powered merchantmen, cargo submarines and even airships could augment conventional air and sea supplies.

Strategically, though, nothing has changed. However powerful the cutting edge of infantry, armour, artillery and air power may be, once the food, ammunition and fuel runs low, the forward forces are useless. As Marshal Rokossovsky, the famed Soviet tank commander in the Second World War, said: ‘It’s not the troops’ job to think of the rear, but the rear’s job to think of the troops.’

Tank drop An 18 ton Sheridan tank is pulled from an American Hercules transport aircraft by giant parachutes. This technique, known as low-altitude parachute extraction, allows heavy loads to be delivered to a battle zone without the aeroplane having to land.