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The 'Credibility Gap': From Normandy on D-Day to Helmand Province Today

Commentary, 13 January 2011
History
Lessons from the past show the dangers of feeding soldiers and citizens false information

Lessons from the past show the dangers of feeding soldiers and citizens false information

By Robert Cutler for RUSI.org

D-Day Landings

It is indisputable that, by 2006, a dichotomy had emerged between the government's portrayal of progress in Afghanistan and the reality of the situation on the ground. A government press embargo in place from the start of 3 Para's tour of Helmand Province in April 2006, which restricted reporting to humanitarian efforts, misled the public as to the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan. This strategy temporarily alleviated public calls for a withdrawal, a logical extension of British policy in Iraq, proving a useful expedient at a time of political instability.[1]

But it also had a detrimental impact on the morale of frontline troops, who were left feeling forgotten and isolated, whilst undermining the public's trust in the government when the myth was exposed in mid-September that year. What was essentially a 'credibility gap' had materialised, undermining public confidence in the government's portrayal of 'reality'.

There is historical precedence for this kind of cynical deception. History students are perpetually warned against the pitfalls of 'false parallels', but it is difficult not to draw some comparisons between the 'credibility gap' that emerged during 2006 and the one exposed within the Third Reich whilst it prepared for the Allied invasion of Europe.

The lessons that should have been learnt from the latter have unfortunately been obscured by a false narrative underpinned by a cult of national triumphalism that informs public understanding of D-Day. Histories of Operation Overlord have often succumbed to temptation and regurgitated cosy chauvinistic legends, rather than provide measured analysis. Whilst recent works have begun to reverse this trend, there remains a host of clichés to be deconstructed.

D-Day Deception

The German attitude to the prospect of invasion is just one of the casualties of the existing historiography. Far from feeling anxious as some historians have suggested,[2] German forces eagerly anticipated the impending battle, which they considered an opportunity to bring the war to a successful conclusion.[3] This attitude was the product of a Goebbels-inspired propaganda campaign, which in the short term energised Army Group B and German civilians for the imminent conflict, but its enduring legacy was the exposure of the dichotomy that existed between reality and government statements. The result in 1944 was a defeatist culture that permeated the Third Reich, undoubtedly contributing to its relegation to the scrapheap of history.

The Labour government's recent manipulation of the narrative emerging from Afghanistan suggests that contemporary politicians have learned little from their predecessors. The frustrations which arose from the state's wilful misrepresentation of reality are evident from the e-mails of a 3 Para Company commander written in mid-September 2006.[4] His missives, once published in the mainstream press, exposed the 'credibility gap' that existed between the government's message and the situation in Helmand. Subsequent events have supported this officer's judgment. Despite messages of optimism from successive Labour governments, after nine years of conflict, ISAF forces remained in Phase One ('regaining the initiative') of General Stanley McChrystal's three-point plan to countering insurgency.

Government deception is hardly surprising considering the nature of current operations. General Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, has made explicit the link between popular support at home and success in Afghanistan. He also argued, as has his successor, that the war in Afghanistan is one that NATO in general, and Britain in particular, must not lose. There is hence a real temptation to massage the truth in order to garner short-term popular consent.

Short-term necessity should not provide justification for wilful misrepresentation. Deception may engender some immediate benefits, but these are often countered by long-term costs. The Nazi regime's propaganda in France provides the perfect paradigm through which to examine this theory.   

Misguided Tactics and Misleading Information

Despite Goebbels' posturing prior to 6 June (his slogan 'Why don't they come?' epitomised his confidence [5]), many in the High Command dismissed the Atlantic Wall as propaganda, rather than a credible defensive strategy. Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief West, regarded the structure as 'just a cheap bit of bluff' [6] which contravened the principles of strategic theory. But the charade of the Atlantic Wall did, at least initially, provide the war-weary German public with a symbol of security from which to draw hope, and offered the rank-and-file of the German army a tangible manifestation of strength.

And the influence of Goebbels' narrative was not restricted to the home front and the common soldier. Hitler proved a gullible victim of his regime's self-deception: combined with Goebbels' propaganda, the Führer's strategic naivety produced a misguided trust in static, defensive structures.[7] His unswerving faith in the Atlantic Wall  ran contrary to the traditional tenets of the German general staff,[8] denying them their conventional strengths of manoeuvre and flexibility which had proven so successful in the early campaigns of the war.[9] The result was a misguided Supreme Commander who constrained tactical flexibility, furthering the impact of the Allies' comparative resource advantages.

But Goebbels' propaganda did have some, limited, benefits. The positive effect on morale is evident from the initial performance of regular German units in the face of overwhelming Allied force. It should be remembered that despite the 850,000 men von Rundstedt had under his command, the majority of these units were of a poor standard. Most Landser units were poorly equipped, inadequately trained and composed of comparatively old or very young conscripts. Many included 'ear and stomach battalions' - units comprised of soldiers who were deaf (an absurd situation when it came to giving orders in battle) or who had suffered debilitating stomach wounds. And, in an era of ever-increasing mechanisation, German infantry became increasingly static, reliant as they were on prehistoric transport: horses and boot leather.[10]

And yet the initial resilience of these units shocked the Allies, who had failed to appreciate the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda in persuading German soldiers that defeat in Normandy would mean annihilation of the Fatherland. The relentless inventions of Goebbels served as a sort of morale Benzedrine for the soldier at the front but, when the deception was exposed, the effect wore off: units were left exhausted and, despite their resilience, resigned to defeat.

This had a disastrous effect on tactical flexibility. Panzer commanders despaired as Rommel was forced to use elite armoured divisions as a stop-gap to reinforce infantry units on the verge of collapse. This emergency expedient temporarily enabled the Germans to limit the Allies' operational space but condemned them to a campaign of attrition which, due to their inferior resources, they could only lose.

In order to alleviate the political pressure caused by an ever-increasing body count and with the impending withdrawal date of 2014/15 looming, the temptation for the Coalition government to embellish reality will only increase as it looks to withdraw under a veneer of success. Unfortunately this process may already have begun. David Cameron's trip to Afghanistan on the 7 December was accompanied by his announcement of 'real progress' and the possibility of a withdrawal of front-line troops before 2014. It is a sad incitement of the recent past that such a statement is now greeted with cynicism.

The unpleasant nature of the comparison which this article has made should only reinforce the message which it makes explicit. Regardless of the regime (whether military dictatorship or parliamentary democracy), governments must retain the moral courage expected of them by the military and the wider electorate: without it, military success will remain an unattainable panacea.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

Notes 

[1] The Blair-Brown transition was proving a destabilising force.

[2] For example Paul Carell in Invasion - They're Coming! (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1962), p. 13

[3] Just five days before the landings a German Lieutenant wrote, "We continue to stand by and hope that they're coming soon. But I'm still worried they're not coming at all". See Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (London: The Penguin Group, 2009), p. 33

[4] General Sir Richard Dannatt, Leading from the Front (London, Bantam Press, 2010), p. 252

[5] Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (London: The Penguin Group, 2009), p. 31

[6] Ibid., p. 32.

[7] For example, without having ever visited the area around Caen, he continually pestered OKW staff about the positioning of two units of multi-barrelled mortars, insisting these alone would decide the outcome of the entire British sector.

[8] Hitler was convinced that the 'fortresses' of the Atlantic Wall provided the best way of stemming the Allies' advance. Observations which challenged this view (such as von Rundstedt's suggestion that the various 'Festung' were vulnerable to a land attack as their guns and concrete emplacements faced seaward) were not favourably received.

[9] For example, the fall of France in 1940 and the early phases of Operation Barbarossa.

[10] John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris (London, Pimlico Military Press, Second Edition, 2004), p.242

See also

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