by Brian Cannon
In my last article, we looked at an example of The Caution that Paralyzes” – when General George Brinton McClellan threw away the goals he most earnestly sought and his own career by being too afraid of losing to take the chances needed to win. [ As an aside, the dangers of this abuse of caution were recently brought home to me in a game when I hesitated in prosecuting an attack through fear of how my opponent would respond. That hesitation extended the game, allowed my opponents to formulate their defense and, but for some lucky guesses later on, almost cost me the win.] In this article I d like to look at several others examples of the Use and Abuse of Caution – Through the Eyes of History.
On July 25, 1944, implementing Operation COBRA, the Allied forces in France staged a breakout from their Normandy beachheads through a corridor near the town of St. Lo. By August 1, US 12th Army Group (under General Omar Bradley) had advanced down the Western coast of the Normandy peninsula, unhinged the German defensive line from its flank anchor at the sea, and reached the town of Avranches at the base of the peninsula. Elements of the US Third Army had already turned the corner” and begun their dash for the Brittany ports while the US First Army was preparing to wheel left to head for Orleans, the Seine, and Paris. The German 7th Army, under General von Kluge, with its left flank dangling and exposed, was faced with a crucial decision. It could follow the prudent course, withdraw its left flank, reform on a north/south line, and withdraw slowly and in good order to the Seine hoping to wear the allies down with a long, slow, costly advance across France -or- it could attempt a dramatic recovery. As the allies sprinted into Brittany and began turning East, the supply line for large portions of both the First & Third armies ran through a narrow strip of land between the sea at Avranches and the left flank of the German 7th army near Mortain. If a successful attack could reestablish the German line on the sea, those allied forces, well over 80,000 troops, would be cut off and could be destroyed. If the attack failed, the German 7th army could find itself unable to reform for an orderly withdrawal.
Strategically it is often necessary to forgo the prudent” course of action as dramatic victories are often won by the bold and the daring. Tactically, however, every good general must always weigh what is possible and what is merely a nice dream. In one game a Turkish player, faced with a choice between allying with Italy (following an Italian stab of Austria) decided it would be a piece of cake for him and his Russian puppet (with German help) to destroy the upstart Italians and become master of the Med. It was a nice dream, but one which relied upon England & France (currently at war) staying out of matters until it was too late. In the event, with Italy helping France defend against England, it quickly became apparent to both E & F that Germany & Russia were ripe for the picking (with THEIR backs turned) and it would make more sense to give up a fruitless fight in favor of rich takings to the East. And Turkey’s bright dreams quickly became tactically quite beyond his means to accomplish.
Back to our story. The German commander understood the risks and possible rewards of his choices. He also understood that, however enticing the rewards, it was unlikely he had the strength to pull it off. Unfortunately, the decision was made by decree from Berlin and the attack was launched toward Mortain & Avranches on August 7, 1944 at 1am. Within 12 days portions of the US Third Army under General Patton and raced along the southern edge of the German line to a position Behind” the German lines of retreat and closed the trap meeting with British General Bernard Law Mongomery’s forces at Chambois, capturing some 70,000 troops in the pocket, and annihilating the encircled Germany army. Because of the German abuse of Caution the Allies were able to speed across all of France, liberating Paris only 6 days later on August 25, and set up Winter lines in Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Ardennes …but that s another story of Caution Abused.
Both McClellan & Hitler’s general staff abused caution in battle settings – McClellan hesitating, through fear of failure, when he should have been bold; and Hitler making a foolhardy attack when prudence was called for – and both paid the Penalty for (their) Lack of Vision!.”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor destroyed the bulk of the US Pacific Fleet reducing the US presence in the West to little more that Four Aircraft Carriers: Hornet, Lexington, Yorktown, and Enterprise. Facing this was a fully formed Japanese fleet which included over 10 Carriers and numerous other Battleships, Destroyers, and more. In May of 1942, following the battle of the Coral Sea in which the Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown badly damaged, intelligence revealed that the Japanese were planning their next stroke at the Island of Midway over 1000 miles north-west of Honolulu. The Japanese goal was to establish a perimeter of fortified bases which the Americans could not breach, destroy the remnants of the American fleet if possible, and force America to a negotiated settlement leaving them in control of the Pacific. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, like Hitler’s General von Kluge, was faced with a difficult decision. Knowing the Japanese naval strength (Yamamoto had some 8 carriers and numerous support ships at his disposal for his Midway operation) and the American weakness (only two healthy carriers as Yorktown was expected to take some time to get back to 100%) he could husband his strength, concede Midway, and defend Hawaii & the US Western coastline against invasion, the prudent” course, or he could send everything he could scrape together to Midway to contest the strategically important island.
Unlike McClellan, Nimitz was a bold man willing to take calculated gambles to achieve the goal” (victory, not just a negotiated settlement). Unlike Hitler’s general staff, he calculated the chances before deciding. In a naval carrier engagement, as seen at Coral Sea (the first naval battle where the opposing surface fleets never sighted each other), great superiority of aircraft and carriers is of value only when the enemy location is known. Nimitz understood that, with a solid search plan implemented from Midway, and the knowledge that the Japanese may reveal their location when they attacked the island itself, it was entirely possible that the smaller American fleet may be able to strike hard against the enemy without their knowing where the American carriers were in return – and to emerge victorious. The full details of this battle need not be repeated here (though interested readers are encouraged to rent and view the excellent 1976 movie Midway” starring Charlton Heston & Henry Fonda). At Nimitz’s command energetic & motivated crews worked around the clock to get the Yorktown battle ready (thought still less than 100%) and on June 4th, with search patterns out, the three American carriers engaged the main Japanese strike force of 4 heavy carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Soryu & Hiryu) under Admiral Nagumo, gained tactical surprise by locating the enemy first, and destroyed all 4 carriers at a cost of only the damaged Yorktown which was hit several times and finally sunk. A brilliant victory which stemmed the Japanese advances, and signaled the turn of the war in favor of the US, gained thanks to bold daring and willingness to take a nicely calculated gamble. A victory which set the stage for US advances in the West and, ultimately, Victory.”
And, after all, isn’t that what the objective of the game is, Victory? But to earn that victory, the ambitious general must be willing to risk losing, willing to take calculated risks, and not afraid to through his or her last reserves into a battle. All the while being careful to calculate the chances of success and failure with a calm & clear eye and willing to hold off an attack when the odds don’t warrant the risk. Let Caution be a tool you use, not abuse, on your road to conquest. Good luck.
Reprinted from Diplomacy World 79