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The secret of good leadership


The German operation Fall Gelb - the invasion of the west of Europe - was not a stunning success as a consequence of a formidable German army or a massive supremacy in tanks, artillery and airplanes. No, the German success was a victory of their doctrine, their operational skills over the WWI armies of the western Allies. Leadership and the system to materialize on good leadership were the main factors that led to the massive German victories in May and June 1940.

And when we speak of leadership we refer to the most important shackles in the chain of command of an army: the subaltern and non-commissioned officers. Generals, Colonels and Majors may be clever enough to design whatever magic battle-plan that may pop-up in their heads, but it are the Captain, Lieutenants and NCO's that have to deliver the translation to let the army materialize on those plans. 

Education of the Dutch cadre

The quality of both the Dutch and the French officers in the subject theatre of operations left much - very much - to be desired. The French at their end proved uncooperative and arrogant towards the Dutch. The Dutch on their part were very cooperative - nearly servile - and as such easily moved to serve under French command. The quality of the field commanders, especially the platoon and company commanders was extremely poor if one would focus on the Dutch units in Zeeland. And that is an aspect that maybe requires a little more elaboration.

The average Dutch officer was a reserve-officer. The standing army of the Netherlands was small. Moreover, the professional officers had to man the staffs of the bigger units and higher echelons. As such just a handful of field officers and a small percentage of the NCOs was professional soldier.

After the first exercise period of usually one full year, the reserve officer returned to his civil life, and was promoted at the exit to 2nd Lieutenant. From then on the officer would only return under arms once in so many years. Technical branch officers received rather frequent updates of their theoretical knowledge, but adequate time for field exercises - let alone large scale exercises - was never available. The average Dutch officer had never experienced an exercise with more than a battalion strength. And even that was rarely seen. Large manoeuvres were too costly. Usually one was occupied with its own section, battery or company. Simulation was a key-word in the field exercise training for - besides the personnel weapons of a unit - heavier weapons, weapon systems or even exercise opponents were hardly ever available. Adequate funds for shooting practise was missing. As a consequence the average Dutch soldier was amongst the best trained marching men in Europe, for long stretch marches were cheap! But field tactics, operational skills and even the most basic deployment skills were hardly ever trained.

Classes in tactics were incidentally given; in general one had to rely on the instruction books for field exercises and operations, of which the Dutch had plenty [cheap information transfer!]. The phenomenon of "combined arms" or "joint operations" was ignored, for as far as it was recognized as a useful topic anyway. Education in strategy - or - foreign armies in general was completely omitted, even hardly ever provided to senior officers. Most senior reserve officers had some knowledge of the military world beyond the Dutch army, but only very limited. Talented professional officers were sometimes detached to the French military schools for advanced military studies, but apart from the fact that only few were lucky enough to receive this additional education, the French military school was old-fashioned. But it were these happy few that taught the new high potentials at the Staff School and those students would pass it on to the reserve officers. The reserve officer was therefore never informed the latest, but usually the old news.

Promotion was a very slow process. The average 1st lieutenant was usually well in his twenties, and before a Captain was promoted to Major he was at least close to his forties! Bearing in mind that up to and including the rank of Major one was a field-officer, it is perfectly clear that the average field-commander was all but young and hardly ever top-fit.

Officers in the Dutch army were drafted from the upper-class. That was also the case in the countries surrounding us. They were well educated and the selection for the Military Academy was extremely strict ... on high rates of intelligence and knowlegde. The abilities that one today would like to recognize in an officer mattered little. Intelligence and class mattered. Leadership was hardly a criterion for promotion either. An officer that indeed showed both leadership and military talent was quite a rare item. It was more important to submit to the system, to follow the lit path set out by the top brass, than show military skills. This is - in a nut shell - the background that one should know if one evaluates the performance of a Dutch field officer anno 1940.

In fact the same applied to NCO's. As a matter of fact the NCO was the most important cadre in an army, and still is. They are the links between officers and the general issues that have to do the job. The quality of the NCO's says much - if not virtually all - about the quality of an army. The average Dutch NCO in May 1940 was a reservist. And they knew little more than the average soldier. The reserve NCO had received a brief NCO course in the depots of its branch and were than shifted to the troops. Since the troops lacked sufficient numbers of professional NCO's and moreover these NCO's were usually pre-occupied with training the new levies of conscripts, the reservist could hardly learn the tricks in the field from more experienced NCO's. Most importantly, the Dutch NCO received no tactical traning whatsoever, unless he was promoted beyond the rank of sergeant. The latter was almost entirely the prerogative of the professional NCO. The result was that the Dutch sergeant in the field was nothing less than a passive translator between officer and men. And that worked out pretty bad!

The performance of the Dutch field-officers

The May War has been carefully studied, already during the war. One particular Dutch officer was [already days after the capitulation] assigned to make an inventory of battle reports. Basically all officers - and later lower ranks too - were instructed to file a report on the events in which they had participated. The units that had been involved in the main battles, such as the ones around the airfields at The Hague and Rotterdam, at the Grebbeberg, and in Rotterdam and Dordrecht, often filed hundreds of reports. Eventually a very thorough investigation of the performance of the troops was executed and more in particular, the way the officers had performed.

From this much extended inventory it soon became clear that a disturbingly large portion of the officers had grossly underperformed. Many were (after the war) dishonourably discharged from the army, and quite some missed a promotion. It goes beyond our story to go into further detail on this, but one of the conclusions one may draw from the study is the following. There where units had been commanded by capable officers. Officers that themselves set a good and firm example of courage, determination and leadership. With this officers in charge, generally spoken, the unit performed well, sometimes excellent. These units did in itself not differ from any other unit that - dealing with a badly performing officer - ran after the first shell or bullet came close to them. It turned out that the quality of the commanding officer or senior NCOs had been essential for the performance of the unit. Good officers and NCOs were often capable of pulling men through the agony and fear of their baptism of fire, to keep moral high notwithstanding casualties and to maintain the discipline and organisation whilst under fire. A brave officer or NCO proved to infect the unit with the same bravery and determination.

Another aspect that clearly came out of the study, was the massive failure of the higher officer ranks and staff levels as it came to clearly instructing the field officers. Field officers turned out to be poorly informed about virtually anything: the objective of adjecent or supporting units, the overall unit or formation objective, the strength of the enemy, the tactical reason behind an order, etc. etc. Sometimes field officers were not even briefed on the basic reason for an order they received. All this was a direct result of the doctrine of schematic order instruction, stricktly on a need to know basis. Even if an officer would have the own initiative to give himself a little room for tactical space in the execution of an order, he would hardly be in the position to do so, for he lacked the necessary information to differentiate from his dictated instructions.

Zeeland in focus

This is a long elaboration on the quality of officers and NCOs, and it may seem off topic. But it isn't. It partially explains why the performance of the Dutch troops in Zeeland was so extremely poor. If one thinks back to the daily reports, and one reads that the Peel-troops from Noord-Brabant often retreated without their officers, because the officers preferred to travel together, one already hears the penny drop. It does not only say a lot about these troop-officers, but also about the senior-officers. A good battalion commander insists on a respectful and (relatively) close relationship between the company commander and his platoon commanders. And the company commander requires the same from his platoon leaders in respect to his NCOs. If a battalion commander does not care about these essential elements, than he allows his officers to travel separated from their men. And it is general knowledge to any (former) soldier that a troop without a commander tends to lose discipline and order, unless a much respected lower rank 'replaces' the missing authority, but that happens only occasionally.

The battle-bruised men that came back from Noord-Brabant and had often seen their officers run off in their cars or on their horses whilst they had to march by foot, lost every bit of respect for their superiors. And since these officers equally shared in the panic and disarray, the last bit of esteem went right out of the window. Which soldier respects his commanding officer, if this superior shows little determination [or none] and equally shares in the panic and fear of his men?

In Zeeland a collective grew of Noord-Brabant troops that were practically without officers, and there where the officers reappeared they were no longer accepted as an authority. They had turned their backs on their men and as a consequence their men did the same with them.

The units that were already stationed in Zeeland when the war broke out had not yet experienced whether their officers would perform under fire or crack. Peace time heroes may proof war time cowards. So the proof in the pudding is by eating it. And it tasted sour!

One can only conclude that the average Dutch officer that acted in the Zeeland theatre failed, blatantly. Especially when one compares the achievements elsewhere in Holland, where at many locations fierce fighting had taken place, the average "Zeeland officer" proved to be extremely inapt.

If one thinks of the many incidents that involved officers as instigators, like the riots at the Airforce Bases Haamstede and Flushing, the lousy behaviour of both Captains of 14 GB that fled the Bathline with their troops [in comparison to the Lieutenant who stayed], the poor performance of the company commanders in the Zanddijkline, the company commander of the 3rd Guard Company that fled time and again from the Zijpe defence, the company commander that ran off at the Sloedam defence, and the many white flag incidents at West-Walcheren on the 17th, one has already a stunning list of command-failure. And that list is far, very far from complete!

And what can we put against that, what acts of heroism or even acceptable diligent behaviour can we identify in Zelland? The AAA batteries performed well. Their attitude under fire was first class, but again we see our theses proven that three fine battery commanders were in charge. We saw one company in the Bathline that stayed although the northern and southern sector had already left. But their company commander - the youngest of all three - stayed and so did the better part of his troops. The defence of Tholen may be regarded as acceptable, but then we have run to the end of our list ...

There is only one conclusion that we can draw. Zeeland was very unlucky with the officers that were assigned to her troops. This has most certainly contributed considerably to the extremely poor performance of the Dutch army in Zeeland. And that is something that is very hard to accept, especially if one - at the same time - feels that the performance of our ally in Zeeland is to be criticized. Are the Dutch - in any way - in the position to criticize? Probably not ...