All around Europe smaller nations would be stuck in a rough spot. Also, at sea replenishment? Amphibious operations?
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 103 - Highway to the Danger Zone Pt. 1 - Out Along the Edges. This week a big thank you goes to Tim for choosing to become a member, gaining access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes. You can find out more at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. The next five episodes are going to be something of a grab bag of random topics. There are going to be a few very important topics that we will discuss with the goal of bringing the story of the interwar years up to the point where we can really focus on Poland starting in episode 109. This will include the British and French guarantee given to Poland in the spring of 1939 and the creation of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the Soviet Union just weeks before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. But then there will also just be a few random things that I want to talk about. This episode in particular is a perfect example of how that might work. The bulk of this episode is going to look at how some of the smaller nations of Europe were approaching the increasingly dangerous political situation in Europe during the 1930s. In Eastern Europe there were various agreements between nations who tried to rid themselves of previous disagreements and at least in some way pool their resources against larger neighbors. Then we will also look at the unenviable position of the nations in the Low Countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands as they were stuck between Germany and France, while sitting on the most likely invasion routes if either nation wanted to attack the other. After those discussions the episode will close out with the discussion of two topics that I will be honest, are placed in this episode for no logical reason, I just want to talk about them: they are the problems of underway replenishment for navies at sea, and how the British, American, and Japanese militaries prepared for amphibious operations between the wars.
Over the course of the entire interwar period there were many discussions between France, the Soviet Unions, and the nations of Eastern Europe around some kind of agreement structure that could help guarantee security. During the late 1920s this often took the form of some kind of Eastern Pact that would replicate the agreements made in Western Europe under the Locarno Pact that had been signed in 1925. That pact had, among other items, contained the agreement that none of the signatory nations would seek border adjustments by military means. The fleeting nature of that agreement, which would later be entirely discarded, was not apparent after it was signed and there was hope, especially in the early 1930s, that a similar agreement in Eastern Europe could bring the nations in the area closer together and allow them to act as a deterrent to larger nations. The biggest roadblock to such an agreement was the fact that there were many more disagreements that had to be dealt with in Eastern Europe when compared with the West. The nations were new, many had fought each other in small border clashes after the First World War as they sought to gain control of their own chosen bits of border regions. And even if they could move past these disagreements, there was also the fact that unlike in Western Europe, where the most powerful nations were onboard at Locarno, the participants in an Eastern Pact were weaker nations surrounded by stronger possible enemies to the east and west. Nowhere was this feeling more strongly felt than in Poland. Poland was both essential to the foundation of any eastern European agreement while also being the most at risk o any fighting that might occur in the region. It is quite hard to blame them, knowing the events of 1939, but those events were just the manifestation of Polish fears that had driven their decision making in earlier years. Being caught between Germany and the Soviet Union, both seen as possible enemies, the Poles would attempt to ride the middle ground, trying not to make too many agreements with one due to concerns that it would just anger the other. There was also the first that the two powers, either of them, and France as well, were far more concerned with their own future than that of Poland, and that any agreements that Poland made with the nations were just going to set Poland up to be the battleground in the next great war, which would be devastating to the Polish people regardless of who won. These concerns, along with what had always been very troubled relations between Czechoslovakia and Poland were always roadblocks in front of any wider Eastern Pact. The Little Entente would be created in the early 1920s, and would last until the destruction of Czechoslovakia, but without Poland and the support of the Soviet Union, their ability to put pressure on Germany was limited.
Moving our focus a bit to the south, there were agreements made that would result in what would be known as the Balkan Pact. In this region the nations were not quite as new, with many having existed well before the First World War, but the animosity between many of them was still very string. There were also just general shifts in how some nations positioned themselves in international relations, with Greece for example just becoming generally more involved in regional relations during the last years of the 1920s. It was almost impossible for the nations of the region to completely ignore what was happening in some of their more powerful neighbors, which for most of the interwar period meant Italy. The general threat that all of the nations felt they were facing led Greece, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia to sign the Balkan Pact in February 1934. At its core the pact dealt with territorial matters, with each nations making a Locarno-esque agreement that the current status quo of the borders were what they supported. This is also exactly the reason that Bulgaria refused to sign the agreement, because joining the pact would have been an admission that they accepted the borders that had been forced on them after the First World War, which the Bulgarian government was not willing to do. But back to the four nations that did sign the agreement. While they had all signed the same document, there were some disagreements about exactly what that document meant. Yugoslavia and Romania generally put more emphasis on tis possible military implications, with nations coming to the aid of others to defend against foreign aggression. Meanwhile, Greece and Turkey, both concerned about angering their larger neighbors, Greece with Italy and Turkey with Russia, downplayed the possible military dimensions of the agreement. The agreement as a whole would take on added urgency during 1935 with the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which made it clear that fears of Italian expansion and revisionism were very much justified. Italian actions would also bring more focus from other nations, with Britain in particular suddenly becoming more concerned with the overall political and military situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. They would focus their efforts on Greece, mostly due to its positioning. But the Greek leaders, from the top with Venizelos and then down through the various ministries were split on the best course of action for Greece. Similar discussing were occurring in Belgium at this time, and really in smaller nations all over Europe who were caught in some really tough positions. On one hand they were concerned about the militarism of their neighbors, which could directly threaten their territory or even their independence. This led them to look for more powerful friends, like Britain for the Greeks, but that brought with it a new set of dangers. If Greece hitched their wagon to Britain, it might just anger the Italians even more, causing an even higher risk of war that Greece was ill-prepared for. This caused some leaders to see public and vocal neutrality as the best course of action, hoping that if they just made it clear that they would stay out of any war between other nations that they would be left alone. This would be the argument of the Greek Foreign Minister Maximos during this time, and it can be difficult to push back on this view with logic that isn’t based on future events. It was likely that even if a smaller nation aligned itself with a stronger neighbor, and that neighbor did come to their aid, and did win the war, that the smaller partner was just setting themselves up for a lengthy period of war, occupation, and suffering.
Nowhere was this problem felt more acutely than in Belgium and Luxembourg. The two nations were in a position that in its unfavorability could only be matched by Poland. They were small nations sandwiched between two rival nations in Germany and France, and it was almost a given that if either of those nations attacked the other they would want to move through the smaller nations in between. The Belgians were stuck in a rough spot where they were more concerned about an invasion from Germany, but if they only built fortifications on the border with Germany it was completely possible that a German attack would instead come from further north and through the Netherlands. For their part the Dutch planned to resist, but just like the other smaller nations in the region they had little hope of victory unless massive aid was rushed in from other nations. There were some disagreements about the best strategy for the Dutch military in time of invasion. They could either try to defend closer to the borders, or they could retreat back to the core where the possibility of a lengthy defense was more likely. However, if they did decide on the latter course, it would make it more difficult for help to arrive from other nations, so it was really a trade off. A focus on an inner fortress region would also prove problematic for Belgium, with it allowing a German attack to move through the Netherlands and towards the Belgian border. The Belgian government, which a bit more trusting of the French, would also slowly move away from close relations to France during the 1930s. For most of the 1920s the two nations were very close, if only due to the fact that they were united in their desire to see Germany pay the reparations from the war, with both France and Belgium being at the top of the recipient list for those reparations. But as 1918 slipped further and further into the past, in Brussels other concerns began to east away at their desires to continue working closely with France. The core of the problem was that the second and third largest national security concerns, after an invasion by Germany, was either being pulled into a war in Eastern Europe due to an alliance with France or being invaded by Germany specifically because of French plans to move their own military units into the country. During the First World War Belgium had seen years of constant fighting, and avoiding being a battlefield was high on the list of Belgian priorities. And just so we are clear, moving a bunch of troops into Belgium, and doing everything in their power to make sure France was not the battlefield of the future, was exactly what the French were planning to do. They were more than willing to sacrifice the Belgian countryside to make that happen. The real turning point in relations between Belgium and France was the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. When it occurred the Belgians would make ti clear that they would not support France if it was going to try and place sanctions on Germany, ending 15 years of close cooperation between the two nations against any alteration of the restrictions placed on Germany in 1919. After the Rhineland remilitarization, there would be a clear trend of the Belgian government moving away from its previous agreements with France. This would culminate in an agreement that would be signed with the French and British governments which essentially replaced all of the agreements that had been made in 1920. Those agreements had brought the French and Belgian militaries together in frequent staff talks and joint military planning. The new agreement put Belgium firmly back into the category of neutral nations, with the expressed intention of not allowing any nation to violate its border. After the agreement was signed, Paris and London would still guarantee Belgian borders, and their neutrality, reverting back to essentially what the relationship between the three nations had been before 1914. This arrangement would still be in place in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, which meant that the German Army had a much smaller length of border to defend, having to only be concerned with the border shared with France. But that was in no way something that should be laid at the feet of Belgium, as with all small nations around Europe during these years, they were stuck in an impossible situation, and one that they fully recognized. They were one of many nations caught in a geographic and demographic nightmare, with no good choices in a world that seemed to be hurtling towards war.
We are now firmly into the random topic section of this episode, because I know that at some point in this podcast I want to talk about the absolutely riveting, but remarkably important topic of underway replenishment at sea. Since the major navies of the world had moved away from sail power during the later 1800s, there had been a new limitation placed on every naval ship, the amount of fuel that it could store onboard. For several decades this was in the form of coal to fire boilers, but then shortly before the First World War some ships began to shift to oil for fuel, a shift that would greatly accelerate after the war. Oil provided a whole host of benefits to naval ships, it was easier to store, drastically easier to move around the ship, and also provided more heat per volume. But no matter what fuel was used, there was a finite amount of it that could be placed on ships, and that finite amount would be used up at some point. This put a specific maximum distance that any warship could travel, at which point it would need to meet up with a collier, generally at a protected anchorage or port, and begin the very manual process of transferring coal. The rate at which this could be done varied, but regardless of the method it was backbreaking and exhausting work for the men on board. But most importantly from a naval strategy perspective, it limited a navy’s options. This did not really become a factor in the major naval engagements of the First World War, most of which were fought in the relatively small constraints of the North Sea, but in the next war, the naval battlefields might be in more expansive waters. There had been some attempts to address this, and allow for the transfer of coal from one ship to another while they were still at sea and moving, but none of them were perfect, and by the time they were showing promise, the transition to oil was already on the horizon. The United States Navy would put a lot of emphasis on underway refueling due to the type of naval war they would spend the entire interwar years planning for, a war with Japan that mandated that the United States Fleet move all the way across the Pacific. Even planning for several hops across the vast distances of the Pacific, the smaller ships of the fleet, the critical flotillas of destroyers and light cruisers, would need to refuel on the way, and therefore it became a common training item. By the early 1930s it was basically a routine exercise. One of the key changes made based on experiences during exercises was for capital ships to be able to refuel their own escorts, instead of having to rely on dedicated supply ships. However, it would not be until late in the 1930s that focus was put in trying to refuel the larger ships of the fleet while underway, with the procedures not being developed until after 1938 by Task Force 7 under the command of one Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz who would later go on to say that “Underway replenishment was the U.S. Navy’s secret weapon during World War II”. Battleships and carriers were generally more dangerous to refuel without a lot of practice and caution simply due to their size, with the lines used to secure a destroyer in place much easier to handle than those required for a ship many times the size. All of these processes would be perfected by 1945, with the massive American fleets of 1945 able to completely resupply not just fuel, but ammunition, food, and everything else, while remaining at sea.
Speaking of the war at sea, another important topic of conversation would be how an army would transition from the sea to the land in amphibious operations. There were so many unknown pieces of amphibious operations during the 1930s, which can be easy to forget due to the prominent role they play in the Pacific War. When looking back from the 1930s there were very few modern examples of large amphibious operations, especially ones that were launched against contested beaches. Gallipoli was an example, but given the course of that operation, it mostly served as an example of the many challenges that would be faced. This left amphibious operations as an area of military theory with many more questions than answers. Was it better to launch day or night landings? How could naval vessels best support the landings? What role could air power play? Would it be more effective to concentrate the landing forces or disperse them, trading firepower in one area for greater flexibility? These were just some of the questions involved. The three nations that would have the greatest need for amphibious operations during the Second World War were Britain, Japan, and the United States. In Britain during the interwar years there would not be many resources put into the amphibious problem, mostly due to budget issues. The Royal Navy had many priorities on which to spend its limited funds, and even though the funds available would greatly increase in the last few years before the war, during most of the 1920s and 1930s it was felt that there was never enough money to go around. The need for such a force was recognized, there were discussions about how the operations would be structured, but the final piece in those efforts was missing: dedicated resources and exercises. One of the challenges unique to Britain was that there was not a dedicated set of infantry units that would perform the landings. The Royal Navy had the Royal Marines, but if they were to be used in landing operations of any size they would need to be drastically expanded. Asking for the money for this expansion would have been challenging and would have required other sacrifices by the Royal Navy that the Admiralty was unwilling to make. This meant that cooperation with the Army was essential, which also meant that both services had to prioritize amphibious operations, which would not really happen until 1938 with the creation of the Inter-Service Training and Development Centre. This group would have only a year to work through the problem and to start development of dedicated landing craft. On the other side of the world, unlike the Royal Navy the Japanese military would put a huge amount of resources towards the problem of amphibious landings. The primary driving force behind this difference was down to how Japan planned to start a war. A critical piece of every Japanese war plan in the Pacific were assaults on various islands held by other nations, from smaller areas like Guam or Wake Island to the much larger operation of invading the Philippines. Due to these very specific known requirements, two different amphibious force structures would be organized. The first was created by the Navy and involved small and lightly armed naval infantry regiments which could be used to quickly move to any smaller island and capture them. This would eventually become the Special Naval Landing Forces which was a bit larger than a battalion in strength, with over 1,000 men. They were highly specialized troops, but their training allowed them to execute night landings and other special operations against smaller targets. The second force was created by the Japanese army and would be used in larger operations if required. 3 divisions would be trained in this special task, but then after 1937 they would be pulled into the fighting in China. While this reduced the ready strength of units to execute the landings, it did not undo the fact that through the training of those divisions the Japanese had gained a good appreciation for what was required to mount successful amphibious operations. In the United States the requirements of War Plan Orange, which was the primary driver behind Naval planning and preparations during the interwar years, made amphibious operations essential. Orange would go through many major and minor revisions, but at its core it was the plan of how the United States Navy planned to fight a war with Japan. The plan always involved some strategy for trying to move naval strength across the Pacific to reinforce or to recapture the Philippines. Due to the islands possessed by Japan, and the likelihood that they would capture other islands, it was always assumed that at least a few islands held by the enemy would have to captured. The Marine Corps would begin to fill the role required to mount these operations, and over the course of the 1920s and 1930s the overall training for the Marines would involve more and more amphibious training. Then after 1935 there would be at least one Fleet Landing Exercise every year, which often also involved the Army. These would continue until 1940, and while the operations after 1941 would grow and evolve, these prewar exercises allowed for the testing of some basic concepts. After the war started, all three nations would be faced with the need for landing operations, and the focus placed on the operations by the Japanese and Americans, and their later entry into the conflict, would give them a leg up, but there would still be many challenges.