Midway: When the Airplane Sunk an Empire (Part IV)

Image: ‘U.S. Navy ships sail in formation during a live-fire gunnery exercise‘. by Official U.S. Navy Page. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.

Analysis and Conclusions


The Empire of the Falling Sun and the Rise of the Eagle

The waves settle down beneath a blue sky and the warmth sun of the Pacific. The waters that were the scenario of a very intense and violent action, are returning to their previous calm state once the battle is over. Yet the seas were the only thing able to return to its previous state; Japan and the United States were very different once the battle was over.

For instance, when the battle started, Japan was the undisputed owner of the Pacific; as the battle ended, the bulk and best of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet went beneath the waves, decimated. With them the aims of Japan and its quest for defeating the US Navy were shattered beyond point. Also, and as the aircraft carriers were the main assets for the encounter, being used in large scale and with no other warship taking direct part, the battle was historic.

The outcome of the Battle of Midway was unmistakably decisive for the War in the Pacific, not to say for the fate of the belligerent countries. At first, it changed the tide in the favour of the United States, giving it almost entirely the initiative afterwards, benefited by it industrial and economic weight. Yet Japan was far from absolute defeat, and more battles and campaigns – like Guadalcanal and the Gulf of Leyte, to name a few – would be necessary to defeat them and destroy their Navy. As Dahms (1963) Murray and Millet (2005) pointed out, Japan was still having a very good fleet with good quality traits, such as the very skilled artillerymen skilled enough for night-time combat and armed with good guns (as the Battle of Guadalcanal would make evident). And it still decided to carry on with the operations to seize some islands in Melanesia. Nonetheless, Japan was on total decline after the battle.

This decline was due to the heavy losses suffered by Japan, which were hard to replace as the economic and industrial might of Japan were very weak. But there was another factor that accelerated such decline and hampered Japan’s performance (for the rest of the war). Indeed, Japan proved to be a hard enemy to defeat, but as Canales & del Rey (2016) and Murray & Millet (2005) explained, the Imperial Navy kept the outcome of the battle from the Army, worsening the clash between both branches, and also lost its aggressiveness and initiative, relegated to a mere defensive strategy. This despite having 4 aircraft carriers, numerous island and naval bases at its disposal, and the chance to replace the losses (yet at a lengthy and costly process, worsened by the extension of the war in time).

As it became a mere defensive weapon, the Japanese yielded the initiative almost entirely to the US Navy and put itself under the mercy of a determined and advancing US Navy, thus weakening and defeating itself. The US Navy, on the contrary, was about to receive new and better naval aviation and aircraft carriers, acquiring the needed tools to push the Japanese back regardless of costs and time… as time was clearly in favour of America.

Being a mere defensive tool meant that the Japanese Navy contributed in consolidating the initiative the US Navy acquired, and also ended in placing itself under the crosshairs of the advancing US Navy under a long and painful self-weakening dynamic. A US Navy that was about to receive more advanced fighters, torpedo-bombers and bombers, alongside new and state of the art aircraft carriers that would enable it to push the Japanese back, no matter the costs and no matter the time – and time was definitely in favour of the Americans.

Worse enough, the defeat at Midway only worsened the serious issues within the Imperial Navy and the Armed forces in general. First, the rows between the aircraft carrier school and the battleship school, with the latter prevailing and making the Navy to look for a decisive encounter with battleships, so to repeat the deed of Tsushima, even for a good time after Midway, as Gibelli (1972), Kennedy (2007) and Thomas (2007) remarks. This, of course, is one of the most basic strategic mistakes Japan made: to repeat the same strategy and formulas of past conflicts – which normally are different in context and nature. This is but one of many strategic mistakes of Japan, which will be reviewed below.

Lessons from the high-seas

Every battle provides two series of lessons. First, lessons related to international affairs and geopolitics, considering that battles are not only part of a conflict but – like wars – a result of years of tensions and competition between two or more powers over a given geographical area, with such tensions and competitions having a crescendo when colliding at any point. Even if that point is located in the middle of nowhere. Second, lessons of military nature: this means, strategic, tactical and operational lessons, being all intertwined.

War is politics by other means…

This is one of the main statements by Clausewitz about war, very crucial to understand the factor behind a war and a battle[1]. As such, the place where politics by other means can take place might be at that same given point in the middle of nowhere, with an apparent lack of strategic value – having in fact a lot, as it was reviewed. Battles have a tendency to take place in locations of some value for either side or both, even if those locations are not located at places that could be considered valuable – like a crossroad, a pass, or a geographical area and accident. Actually, areas of strategic interest for naval purposes can be islands or straits far from inhabited areas and from the shore, increased only if located near important SLOCs. In fact, trade and economic interests can add value to such position; even more, interests elsewhere could make that given point even more important, moreover if it is vital to protect those far interests. This was the case with Southeast Asia, Pearl Harbour and the same Midway for Japan and the US. For the former, to protect the conquered territories of Indochina and Indonesia and their valuable oil and other resources. For the latter, to support its advance to the Philippines and to protect both the Hawaii Island and the continental territory. Midway was simply a valuable platform for supporting national interests and projecting power either east or west[2].

This importance was correctly assessed by both sides simply because of its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, hence making vital its control or neutralization. Since the US controlled it, it was pivotal for US naval (power) projection into the Philippines and to protect its territories.

Given the important geographical location of Midway, the second lesson is that geography and geopolitics are important, even more during battles. Moreover, when considered in group alongside previous and current political development and a large historical background, one can understand the strategic and national objectives and interests as they can be framed by the aforementioned factors[3]. This is when war becomes politics by other means, as it becomes necessary to meet them and/or assert them vis-à-vis the adversary.

This holds even more true when two or more competing nations have overlapping interests right over the same area[4]. Therefore, competition will inevitably follow, even reaching an open conflict; prior the conflict and during the “peaceful” stages of competition, competing powers would be placing their military assets at locations crucial for asserting and protecting their interests, and to project thus their power towards the area of interest[5]. Those assets would be ready to defend those areas when conflict sparks, with battles normally deciding who controls what and who can’t. Like the Battle of Coral Sea.

Since competition is inevitable, the period prior Midway showed that diplomacy and rapprochements might not help in preventing the inevitable, as rivalling powers will see each other with concern and suspicion, even preparing for conflict during rapprochement and diplomatic efforts. As they assessed the other as a threatening competitor, they will be preparing the war – and plans – against the other, even if at a point both sides are allies for a period of time. Moreover, diplomatic bargains and agreements can be counterproductive, as concessions by one side can further stimulate the ambitions of the other, as it could see them as a blank check to advance further on its interests. The deals between Japan and the US are the example here. And such bargains can only give one side more time to prepare for war.

In the same way, measures aimed at curbing the interests – and advances towards – of one side could further stimulate its assertiveness and aggressiveness instead of halting it, as that said might see it as a blockade against it thus being encouraged to be more aggressive. This is very likely when concessions took place previously, or if that said power is forced to give up on its gains, being resentful at the point of being alienated. If there are pressing economic concerns worsened by sanctions and blockades, odds for open conflict – strategically questionable or not – will be very high.

At sea is not a chess but a game of Go…

As it was stated in the partIIIa, strategy is very similar to the ancient Chinese game of Go, where the aim is to surround the enemy by occupying the most number of tiles. On naval warfare this is the main principle driving its action, be peacetime or wartime. It might sound simple, but this is far from reality. Indeed, land warfare also requires the control of important strategic locations, but encounters are more like a chess; naval encounters might have this chess-alike nature, but battles tend to have more the essence of Go behind. The common underlying element is that warfare at any dimension are still rules by the general principles of strategy.

Naval warfare requires a good level of preparedness and responsiveness, simply because the commander of naval forces must be aware of threats above the sea, on the sea and under the sea; it is also subjected to the fog of war, which has a larger extension thus making harder for him to detect the enemy fleet while avoiding detection at the same time, and despite the current technology. As such, naval warfare is not only a set of Go, but also a game of cat and mouse where both are more like ghosts looking for each other.

In the light of this, Midway provides a good number of lessons of strategic and military/naval nature. Lessons that could be useful even in the light of high technology and powerful naval weaponry.

The first one is the abovementioned desire of the old battleship school to wage the tactics and strategy of a past war. Not only because it is a repetition of the same formula that will work only once, but also because of the big technological difference between Tsushima and World War II: on the former the battleship, still ruled by most of the traditional naval tactics; on the latter, the aircraft carrier. It is unwise to use the tactics that were useful in a past war. As Musashi (2007) puts, repeating the same technique is wrongful. Another important strategic mistake the Japanese made is the most common and most harmful of all mistakes possible: they underestimated the Americans at the point of thinking they would not be willing and ready to take on their challenge[6]. This was further stimulated by Japan’s overconfidence on its on assets and capacities, and the relative easy victories they achieved for the first six months, which made them think they were invincible. They underestimated their enemy while overestimating themselves.

This mistake prompted, in turn, a third mistake. This was comprised by arrogance, which might benefit the adversary, as it did in the end. As arrogance, overestimation and overconfidence usually do, the Japanese thought that further military victories and conquests were possible. This not only led to an overstretching of the very scarce resource of Japan, worsened by the fact that the war was becoming lengthy against their best hopes. This attitude also resulted in giving the Americans the chance to understand and know better the Japanese, and to realise their strong and weak points, thus adapting themselves to be able to defeat them. Midway was the result of such process of ‘understanding the adversary’. And this is a rule in every conflict. Arrogance is the worst enemy of every army, and warfare is about understanding the enemy while being adaptable[7].

But there are more strategic mistakes made by the Japanese. For instance, be by bad luck, wrong evaluation or both, it failed in destroying the warships that ultimately allowed the US to put in practice its pre-war plans and exert a flexible and mobile initiative and offensive, let alone to set in motion its overall strategy. As the aircraft carriers were left untouched, the US kept the assets enough to strike back despite inferiority, with the Tokyo Raid being an example. When attacking, the objective must be accomplished at its fullest[8]. Also, despite a recognition to the dire situation and no alternatives for Japan, a surprising and pre-emptive strike could be a self-defeating move, even more if the enemy is not evaluated correctly. As Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, it filled the US with determination enough to make use of its industrial and economic power; this might be the additional consequence of unprovoked pre-emptive strikes, as they can simply give the targeted nation to be fully determined in defeating the aggressor. Any force must consider carefully who attacks, and where is about to hit.

There were two additional mistakes by the Japanese. First, the division of forces weakened the strength of the attack. Second, the operation lacked adequate preparations and, as it will be reminded below, there were serious issues with the chain of command. In any case, the chain of mistakes of strategic and operational nature compromised the very scarce but valuable naval assets of Japan. As such, it is important to remind that, given the importance warships have for the strategic objectives, power projection and prestige of a naval power, naval operations require a very careful planning so not to lose these same high valuable assets that are quite hard to repair, unless having enough industry to cover the losses at a good rate. In any case, the loss of warships is also a serious issue, as they are useful for harming the adversary strategically by controlling areas of the sea and denying the adversary to control them, or even access them, at the point of hampering its same economic interests and stability as a nation[9]. In the light of this, the aim of Japan of destroying the US Navy in a single encounter by ambushing the bulk of its diminished fleet was in strategic terms, very accurate. It was the strategic and operational mistakes what doomed the plan.

But additional factors other than strategic also contributed to the outcome of the Battle of Midway, providing also a wide array of lessons.

As a matter of fact, the composition of forces and assets of both sides were equal at a first glance, since Japan and the US were having aircraft carriers, naval aviation – fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers embarked in the aircraft carriers – and their respective intelligence services, which were very capable and skilled with good preparation and training. But a closer look reveals the how the crucial differences between the two adversaries played a role in the battle, and in the end, in the war.

For instance, the strategic and material superiority of the Japanese Imperial Navy and the very dire and inferior situation of the US Navy was deceitful. As such, an adversary with superiority in numbers and with a good strategic situation facing a weakened adversary does not have its victory granted.

Here is where the first difference takes place. This is the aircraft carrier and its air power. As it was reviewed in part IIIa, both sides committed at developing the aircraft carriers in technical and operational aspects, at the point of having the most operationally efficient and capable warships of this time, capable of carrying a large number of airplanes and anti-air defences. Even their designs were very similar, which enhanced flight deck operations and allowed to concentrate the electronic equipment in a single area. Also, both sides developed and designed the airplanes purposed to be operated in the vessels, with well-designed, sturdy, capable and well-armed airplanes. In other words, assets matters; but even more, technology matters. Simply because good assets can make the difference when facing the adversary in battle.

The keywords for this acquisition of good assets are “right policies”. Such policies are the main requirement and the crucial element behind the creation of assets needed to meet and/or asserting national interests (defence and deterrence included), let alone to allow a nation to fight a war. Assets are also crucial for the conflict that would be foreseen by the strategists of each nation, as it was the case with Japan and the US, for both clearly assessed that war with other was inevitable at a certain point. Given how crucial is the preparation of assets prior a conflict, it is also important to implement any military build-up very carefully, as the most minimum fault might have very serious consequences for the fate of a nation. here is where the second difference lies. And it is here also where Japan was filled with several fault-lines that resulted in its defeat at Midway, and in the end, costing it the war.

As it was remarked, the Japanese focused on having very high-quality aircraft carriers and other naval (air) assets, which can be a very good input for operations. The problem is that elite-based forces and assets are also very hard and costly to replace, even more when those are the set of initial forces. In addition, they are especially vulnerable to exhaustion and attrition, with losses forcing the quality of the armed forces and fleet to be sacrificed for quantity. This negative effect is further worsened if the bulk of the armed forces is based upon elite forces, moreover if the abovementioned lack of financial and industrial solid basis is present. This was the first fault-line that costed japan the battle of Midway[10].

If the material resources available are very scarce, making difficult the replacement of losses, such difficulty will worsen if there are strong competition and rivalries within the armed forces as it was the case between the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Army. Political aspects were also present, especially the bitter clashes between the civil government and the armed forces. All of the previous factors, when combined, constitute the second fault-line: the resulted in a lack of cooperation between the Imperial Navy and the Army and a lack of cooperation between the government and the armed forces, and also in a lack of overall unified (strategic) criteria. The Japanese attack against Midway had their forces divided; in reality, there was a strong and self-defeating division within Japan that weakened the force of its offensive and the force and solidness of its armies and fleets. They were defeating themselves long before the battle. A similar situation can defeat any nation beyond any repair.

The third fault-line within Japan, which also nearly neutralized any advantage Japan had thanks to the initial superior quality of its assets, was the abovementioned prevalence of the ‘Old Battleship School’. In a more general sense, any current within the armed forces in favour of an outdated and strategically irrelevant assets, will result in hampering the technological development by denying their own armed forces of assets and weaponry that could bestow a better firepower or a certain advantage vis-à-vis any adversary. This could also result in ignoring other types of weapons that can be useful for securing the country in wartime or allowing the armed forces to effectively threaten the enemy; Japan ignored anything related to submarine and anti-submarine warfare, increasing the vulnerability of its sea-borne supply lines as the US submarines were free to strangle Japan by attacking the commercial ships. Submarines were also used as mere scout during the battle.

This is a sharp contrast with the case of the US Navy, as it implemented more efficiently the policies oriented at creating the needed assets (and the needed quality), alongside the devising of the needed tactics and operational aspects of both aircraft carriers and naval aviation, and the appointment of skilled officers – familiar with that type of assets – as commanders. Innovations that enhanced capacities of both warships and warplanes were the product of exercises and drills, which effectively complemented the abovementioned measures. More importantly, the Navy’s own flexible and independent structure, the attention given to AA defences on the ships, and the available resources enabled the US to create a good quality Navy in basically every aspect. This quality would make itself evident during the Battle of Midway. And basically, for the rest of the war.

Strategically speaking, the US did something that now we can evaluate as pertinent, if not entirely correct, and this is to take initiative. Despite facing adversity and having numerical or material inferiority, not to mention that strategically speaking, it was a compromised situation, the US Navy decided to have some aggressiveness and initiative right immediately after Pearl Harbour, from the Tokyo Raid that had a very strong psychological impact[11], and the limited but fiery offensives at basically all the fronts in the Pacific. This initiative also helped the Americans in gaining valuable experience and learning more their adversary, identifying the Japanese strengths and weaknesses and thus devising both the weaponry and tactics to deal with them. Initiative is to be maintained always, even when facing the odds. The Americans knew their enemy by experience. This accumulated experience, as a result, prepared the US Navy for the battle to come. In relation to this, and as it was abovementioned, the wrongful Japanese against Pearl Harbour awoke the “sleeping dragon” the US was, then using all its available resources to wage war against Japan, enhancing its forces and their performance upon the abovementioned accumulated experiences. In contrast, the Japanese were subjected to exhaustion, attrition and losses[12]. The Americans were able to turn defeat into victory by adapting and maintaining initiative, being able to overcome themselves in the process[13].

The US Naval intelligence proved to be much better than that of Japan, acknowledging that both were of good quality. Sun Tzu once stated that war is basically based upon deception[14]. As such, it is in the intelligence services where the capacity to set the deception or to detect it lies. This is the main reason why they are a very important element within any armed forces, as well as the fact they can penetrate deeper into the fog of war. Or more practically – and related to the Battle of Midway – it can break through the codes of the enemy, deciphering them and then capable of detecting its intentions[15]. In addition, a good intelligence service can be a very helpful tool for a commander to gather, process and evaluate the information correctly and efficiently – as it was the case with Admiral Nimitz – so to devise good strategies and plans for the battle. Hence, a good intelligence service is simply a must. On this way, it is also imperative to protect the own information – not to say the codes for such information – so to prevent the enemy to know one’s intentions. And a good intelligence service could dismantle the adversary’s own deception by setting a counter-deception, at the point of making it to make mistakes and to ‘reveal’ itself and its plans. Intelligence is as vital as information is. It is crucial to know the intentions and essence of an enemy[16]. As Musashi (2007) remarks, it is vital to have intuition. This intuition can be in great part thanks to good intelligence services.

As it was made evident, the commanding factor is equally crucial during any battle and war[17]. Mainly due to the fact that good leadership is vital, and even more for naval warfare. Traits such as character, personality, skills, training and formation, alongside flexibility, and capacity for initiative and responsiveness are all vital when a commander must take a decision during a very crucial – and often heated – moment requiring split-seconds decisions. Nimitz and the American subordinates were an example of this. Also, the Americans were able to grasp the possibilities and the aims of the Japanese.

In the same way, shortcomings will become that evident at the point of damaging the operational outcome of forces beyond repair. The Japanese, in fact, were having a large number of shortcomings on the commanding factor. For instance, the Japanese commanders were very strict and stuck to the textbooks, blindly following orders thus lacking flexibility and responsiveness and lacking initiative. Moreover, some of the Japanese commander were not the adequate commanders for the type of operations and assets used. There was also hesitation and lack of decision, as Nagumo lost valuable time when deciding the tack of attacks to execute after the initial bombing of Midway; it was because of this lack of decision that ordnance was stored on deck, being vulnerable to the bombs of the American SBD Dauntless dive-bombers.

If the commanders are full in overconfidence and arrogance, they and their forces will be going to battle blind to the real nature, strengths and capacities of the adversary, clearly underestimating it. This is worsened if there is no concrete information on the enemy, or if the same enemy has set a rouse to further deceive the commander in question, aided by his arrogance and overconfidence. As such, there is a general tendency for evaluating and expecting the enemy to behave in accordance to the ideas, preconceptions and prejudices… or basically to expect for the enemy to behave the way one would like upon oneself logic. This was the greatest mistake of Yamamoto, and a mistake that is a direct way to an important defeat.

Additionally, a good chain of command is important as it transmits and materializes orders and plans efficiently and right time, managing properly the action of subordinates and troops or sailors. As such, a good chain of command giving room to initiative, flexibility, responsiveness, independence and a sort of deliberative attitude can achieve a better operational performance resulting in a good outcome. The US was able to win at Midway thanks to this fact as well. On the contrary, a very authoritarian, inflexible and rigid chain of command that prevents initiative, flexibility, independence, responsiveness and subordinates to do suggestions will lead any force into bad performance and defeat. And a strong reliance on textbooks and preconceived ideas also denies capacity to react to situation out of the textbook of the plans, resulting in mistakes and consolidating the path towards defeat.

…until the time for the encounter arrives

With this said, now there can be a closer approach to the battle itself. First, an important battle can be – most of the times – pre-defined by previous encounters and events, as well as by elements beyond the military ones. The Tokyo Raid is a clear example, as it impressed the Japanese very deeply, at the point of insecurity. That insecurity and other considerations made japan to execute further operations, with Coral Sea and Midway included. The same Coral Sea battle played a role by diminishing the Japanese naval forces, diminishing the imbalance in number of forces and highlighting the US capacity to recover from any loss[18]. And the Japanese offensive against Ceylon delayed the changing of the codes, giving ample time for their deciphering by US Naval intelligence. In addition, Japan failed in neutralizing the most important naval asset of any navy – even then when attacked Pearl Harbour. It was their ‘lost opportunity’[19].

Secondly, and as it was briefly pointed out above, the Battle of Coral Sea gave the US Navy to take the initiative, and also the opportunity to test and hone tactics, being able to ‘measure’ and understand better its adversary. This is the observation here: well-learned lessons and the implementation of those from past encounters and operations can enable one to prepare well the own forces, and to wage with optimal performance a battle.

Third, luck and chance are, inevitably, elements that will be present in any battle[20], with the outcome of any being almost decided by these two factors. They can overcome the most fully prepared plans by any army or navy. As von Moltke once stated: “plans never survive the first encounter with the enemy”, with von Clausewitz remarking that luck is the ultimate element both in war and battle[21]. As such, it was at a good extent a chance and luck that the US Naval intelligence was able to break the Japanese coded due to their slight mistake of not changing them for a while; it was a matter of luck that the US carrier forces were able to detect first the Japanese the same way the Japanese submarines were not able to detect the US aircraft carrier forces as they were delayed in reaching their ordered position. It was also a matter of luck that the American dive-bombers found the air defence system of the Japanese concentrated on other threats, finding their way open, and exhausted by the actions of the previous uncoordinated waves of airplanes. And its was a matter of luck that all the dive-bombers converged almost simultaneously, with luck being the factor that made those airplanes to sink and empire, when a series of bombs happened to strike just were the ordnance was accumulated, sentencing the Japanese aircraft carriers and its aims.

And fourth, battles can be a decisive moment, yet not enough to put a war to an end inmost of the times; more encounters, a large campaign and more battles might be needed for one side to entirely defeat the other side.

At the seas, airpower is king

When thinking about naval warfare, the first thing coming to mind is about warships, facing each other with their guns or even with their missiles, and about submarines chasing each other or even threatening the commercial or military ships of the adversary. This is still true, somehow, but since the wake of the 20th century and both world wars, four new weapons emerged as important, with two of them becoming the capital ship for every important navy: those are the submarine, the missile, the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation. The last three are the ones that changed the shape of naval warfare. As controlling the air space is essential for any country during any war or campaign, having a warship capable of carrying airplanes is important to gain that control over the skies, so to protect the own forces and to defeat effectively the enemy forces, is important[22]. But also having the right airplanes for the task is necessary: planes able to neutralize the enemy air assets, airplanes capable of hitting the heart of the enemy territory, airplanes capable of defending the own naval forces, airplanes capable of hitting the enemy ships and submarines that are far away from the own forces[23].

The battles of Coral Sea, of Midway, of the Gulf of Leyte, the Falkland Wars, the same Battle of the Atlantic, and the series of small conflicts and interventions taking place in the third world after WWII, are all an evidence of the importance the aircraft carrier and naval aviation has regained for naval warfare and for the abovementioned operational objectives. Moreover, the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation are now an essential asset – and tool – for every major navy to assert its interests, project its power and determine the outcome (be military or political, or both) of any situation or crisis taking place somewhere else and that might affect those interests[24]. Also, the primacy of the airplanes shows how a small and comparatively cheap asset can change the course of a conflict or assert/deny the interests of a given nation, in a short period of time and with more room for action and agility in comparison to sea-based assets. And as with Midway, how a few decimated the best of a fleet.

In the light of this, it is clear that naval warfare evolved in both World Wars at the point of becoming the main weapon in relation to sea power, as its capacities allowed any navy to effectively neutralize and/or destroy the naval assets of the adversary, altering or changing the outcome of a conflict. The airplane proved its value and dangerousness as it was able to destroy the bulk of a carrier force in less time than an encounter with warships would have required, as it was the case in Midway. Or the capacity of the airplane to dislodge the ‘choking’ campaign against the shipping lanes by the U-boots, as it happened in the Battle of the Atlantic with the escort carriers and the aviation embarked there. Even more, the naval airplane proved to be capable of changing the fate of a nation, shattering its strategic and national objectives and ambitions or consolidating its hegemony over a disputed territory, let alone the national and strategic interests. Naval warfare has changed for good, with (naval) air power becoming as important as the battleships and guns were once. There is however, one striking similarity: as the old battleships and gunships, the aircraft carriers and their air assets are used as a political tool for intervention and crises. In any case, the introduction of new technologies hints that in the future, the carrier-based airplane will remain crucial in an era where power is airborne and where pilotless and intelligent air assets are gradually becoming mainstream. It is yet to be seen, however, how naval warfare will be changed by those new technologies and developments.




[1] See: Von Clausewitz, 1999, p. 37, p. 47, and pp. 291 – 309. And: Herwig, 1998, p. 70.

[2] Also, a war elsewhere can bring a given rising power into the area of interest of a local power – like the US-Spanish 1898 War did with the US – that will feel challenged, even more as the new power can see necessary to protect the newly acquired territories closer to the mainland of the local great power. This protection requires military/naval assets, obviously.

[3] As Friedman (2015) puts, Geopolitics basically frames the behaviour and pursuit of national interests by the nations – and their leaders – and other international actors (pp. 30-31). Owens, in turn, points out that Geography constraints or facilitates the foreign policy and strategy of every nation, and the way they assess their (in)security vis-à-vis other states (pp. 59-60).

[4] This competition can take place between a rising and a traditional great power, two rising powers or two traditional powers. And even between a local and an outsider great power.

[5] This lesson is similar to the one reached during the analysis of the Battle of Kadesh… simply because this is a sort of general law when studying the dynamic between great powers and the inevitable tendency for competition and conflict. See: The Battle of Kadesh, part III.

[6] To be fair, the Americans also underestimated the Japanese seriously up until Pearl Harbour, as Murray & Millet (2005) pointed out.

[7] Adaptability is a ‘must have’ attribute for every armed force, air force and navy, according to Murray (2009). Cfr. p. 1. In relation to arrogance, this is listed as one of the worst faults of the commander by Sun Bin (1996).

[8] See: Musashi, 2007, p. 39 and p. 49.

[9] The most prolific examples are the blockade of Germany by the Royal Navy in WWI, the German submarine campaigns in both world wars, and even the American submarine campaign against Japan in WWII. See also footnote 19.

[10] As Sun Bin (1996) puts, trying to compensate the things that are lacking and that an enemy state has in large surplus will harm the own forces. See: p, 143.

[11] Striking fear by a surprise in the hearts and minds of the enemies is an important tactic for Musashi (2007). The Tokyo Raid did basically that.

[12] As Murray & Millet plainly put, Japan simply made a political – and strategic – mistake when attacking US territory. See: p. 261.

[13] Following Musashi (2007), it is imperative to adapt by experience to the enemy, and to overcome and improve oneself, as well as to have always the initiative.

[14] See: Sun Tzu, 2014, p. 37.

[15] The Japanese lack of care with their own codes contributed the US Navy intelligence to break their codes and uncover their plans. And set the famous rouse.

[16] Knowing the enemy and knowing oneself is something that both Musashi (2007) and Sun Tzu (2014) point out as essential for any war or battle.

[17] Following Musashi (2007), the general – or admiral – is like the master-carpenter, managing the forces and how the plans will take place, while the soldiers – or sailors – are those who put into practice the plans (pp. 17-19).

[18] The reparation of the USS Yorktown, which was damaged in the Battle of Coral Sea, in a very short period of time, is a feat and an example of US capacities to recover any sort of loss. Noteworthy to remind that the Japanese actually considered her as sunken.

[19] Cfr. Cau, 2011, p.169; Macdonald, 1993, p. 64; and Canales y del Rey (2016).

[20] See: The Battle of Kadesh, part III.

[21] See: Von Clausewitz, 1999, p. 44.

[22] Cfr. Bergamino & Palitta (2015), Canales y del Rey (2016), Crawford (2001), and Kaplan (2008).

[23] As Ross & Sandison (2008) points out, aircraft carriers – and embarked air assets – have at either peace or wartime 9 tasks: corrective force; preventative force; precautionary force; demonstrative force; disaster relief; ASW; air defence; strategic/tactical reconnaissance and strike; and air-to-ground support (p. 79).

[24] As Kaplan (2008) points out, and in a more general approach, fleets are important instruments for political power, as it is the mean that facilitates the most the projection of national power far from the main territory, even more in combination with the air power – naval or land-based – and exerting political and diplomatic pressure (pp. 78-79). Friedman (2015) also points out that naval power is important for the control of the two main oceans, as well as of the international economic system (p. 23). This allows to understand more the capital importance aircraft carriers have for both naval and national power.




Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

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The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 3b.

Image ‘PB383’ by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.


The Prussian General Staff influence and legacy (II)

In the previous part, the legacy and influence of the Prussian General staff in the current German armed forces and the US armed forces was reviewed, pointing the elements that remains in the case of the Bundeswehr along those absent while considering Germany is the main inheritor of the Prussian General Staff. The interest and slow but steady adoption – and implementation – of the General Staff system and its principles within the American armed forces.

The US is not the only example of an army interested in adopting the General Staff system and its principles. For instance, the British Empire, Russia/Soviet Union and France also introduced this system in full or in part, and just like the US, as a result of a needed change of doctrines evidenced by their own operational experiences. But it was during WWII, that such adaptation became necessary so to match the Germans’ doctrine in the case of the US, Great Britain and Russia, following Corum (2009).

The British Empire

In the British case, such implementation was gradual, with WWII being the final catalyst. British implementation and adaptation of the General Staff system started after witnessing the impressive performance of the Prussian Army in the German Unification Wars and the Franco-Prussian War, with the Boer War sparking further reforms. By 1912, a publication structuring the British Staff functioning appeared, being a mixture of the Prussian/General Staff with the British approach[1]. During WWII, Bernard Montgomery, head of the 8th army and rival of Rommel, further introduced the General Staff system in that army. Nevertheless, the figure of Chiefs of Staff was only for units of corps level upwards, until the 1980’s (Johnston, 2008). This was a stark contrast with Prussia/Germany.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) also established their own Staff Systems. In the Royal Navy’s case, in 1911 a General Staff was implemented by Winston Churchill after a strong opposition by many Sea Lords, with a dual staff system being implemented in the interwar period with a Chief of Staff for operations and an officer for support. A supporting body denominated the ‘Secretariat’ was also established. But this Staff was not as functional as that of the British Army (Johnston, 2008). In the case of the RAF, its own General Staff system was a product of the Army’s strong influence during its emergence. The RAF General Staff had three branches: air, technical and administration, having equal ranking and separate heads at tactical level, with the last two branches working under a single officer and the air branch having its own officer (Johnston, 2008).

Russia/Soviet Union

The Russian/Soviet case is also interesting in the way the General Staff system evolved there. Following Eisel (1993), a first stage is when the General Staff system (on its Frederician format) was introduced by Peter the Great, due to his admiration for the West thus basing such on the Prussian and Swedish models. It was enhanced through time mainly on its education and selection processes, addressing perceived gaps. A second phase is a more sophisticated and complex Russian/Soviet General Staff, yet suffering a direct and high political influence. This version is product of the training provided to Soviet officers by German officers in exchange for clandestine facilities for manoeuvres in the USSR[2]. In peacetime, the Soviet General Staff was subordinated to the Ministry of Defence; in wartime, it was subordinated to the STAVKA, the highest instance with decision-making powers in the USSR, and the Secretary General of the Communist Party, along many top officers being part of it (Eisel, 1993). The odds for political influence in the military, hampering its performance, were pretty high, since important political figures were part of the high commanding body (in wartime) and the General Staff was a mere subordinate. The risks of the “courtesan officers” keen on playing politics were also high, as well as politicization of the army, nepotism and corruption.

The Soviet General Staff had a similar role like its Prussian/German counterpart. According to Eisel (1993), the Soviet General Staff was tasked with basic strategic planning and defining missions for each service, with the particularity of being comprised by officers from all branches (evidencing a highly centralized command structure), and with their organizations’ performance and individual fidelity to the party and its affairs as grounds for promotion and future assignments. This also increased the risks mentioned in the previous paragraph.


The French case is equally interesting, considering that France was the nation that suffered the most under the efficiency and abilities (not to say the principles) of the Prussian/German General Staff. Such background also forced this nation to adopt many of the principles of the Prussian General Staff after its defeat in 1871. First, and following Eisel (1993), the French military realized the need to overhaul its own staff system, which was organized upon functional lines but came to stagnation after Napoleon I disappeared, considering such system emerged during his reign[3]. Then, a Staff training school was established in 1818, with Staff Officers having a rotary service between staff and field tasks like the Prussian General Staff officers. An 1833 reform made officers to serve for General Staff after being selected, and to include in the curriculum planning and drafting of maps; despite this, bad performance and defeat were the final outcome given the way the General Staff system was implemented by the French.

The resulting operational (bad) performance and defeat in 1871, prompted the French Army to implement reforms more in line with the Prussian General Staff principles. According to Eisel (1993), after the Crimean and Franco-Prussian War, educational reforms were implemented with officers rotating between General Staff and field tasks. And after WWII two military bodies were established in 1950 to enhance preparedness. There is a National Defence General Staff with a military officer as a head and who in turn is subordinated to the French Prime Minister, followed by the Armed Forces General Staff with its own Chief of Staff.

Israel: General Staff with a special touch

Israel is another example where the General Staff system and its principles are being applied; if not entirely, at least in part and with the incorporation of very particular characteristics. The direct influence of Prussia in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is yet to be established[4]. However, it is clear that many IDF operational principles are similar – or at least are an adaptation of – to those of the Prussians. The context, location, culture and strategic and operational needs of Israel might explain such close resemblance[5].

More in detail, and following Murray (2009) and Senor & Singer (2011), the IDF relies heavily on professionals and the reserve force – similar to Prussia back in the bismarckian era – due to its own population size, which is very small. This requires the IDF to have a small force capable of mobilizing the scarcely available human resources[6]. In addition, the very limited space Israel has, reduces the margin for reaction, all while facing multiple threats and even with a dual-nature threat by facing adversary neighbouring hostile forces and irregular warfare. This also results in a very small number of officers, who also have to manage with tasks more common to higher ranks.

On the same General Staff System, the IDF General Staff is headed by the Chief of General Staff and the Chief of the ground forces, followed by the heads of the Navy and the Air Force, which are the second branch. The heads of different military affairs (Intelligence, Manpower, Operations, and Planning, Technologies and Logistics Directorates) come as the third branch, with the Heads of Operational regions/Theatres (which are four) being the fourth branch, and the heads of various military affairs or officers serving as liaison between the military and the politicians, among others[7].

There are two remarkable characteristics of the IDF General Staff. First, the Intelligence Division, which was – at least by 2002 – the main military intelligence gatherer and analyst of the Middle East and worldwide strategic context, acting also as political advisor to the government and the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister, yet unable to intervene in politics and decision-making, according to Peri (2002). The fact that this division is mainly tasked with awareness of the strategic context resembles another similarity between the IDF General Staff and the Prussian General Staff, as such awareness is crucial for assessing the strategic context and any threat from the surroundings.

But if the Intelligence Division is unable to intervene directly in politics and decision-making processes, the Planning Division of the IDF General Staff can do so. Following Peri (2002), this division can have a role in politics and in any policy-making regarding defence. This division also emerged from the Operations Division and only for military planning, covering in 1969 strategic planning as well as national interests, including political-economic aspect of national security. This is another important parallel of comparison between the IDF General Staff and the Prussian General Staff; while the latter took such aspect into account but not entirely, the former clearly considers such with special attention, recognizing the influence of politics influence in operations, war planning and national defence. This gives the impression that the IDF General Staff is more advanced or complex than the Prussian system on this sphere.

Interestingly, this division became an independent branch within the IDF General Staff with special scope and functions. As Peri (2002) points out, the Planning Division became a fully independent branch of the General Staff, yet subordinated directly to the Chief of General Staff and the Defence Ministry; it is also a joint military-Defence Ministry unit, with faculties to jump into civilian and political spheres. There is another interesting trait of the IDF General Staff. For instance, and according to Peri (2002), the Chief of General Staff acts as the commander of all the branches or services of the IDF, and tasked with preparing for war and of building military power and managing military operations. The Chief of General Staff is also a link between the military and the politicians, being the main military advisor to the government, meaning that politics can permeate heavily the military. The members of the General Staff have, in fact, an important political weight and influence, being crucial in many political processes and events besides the strategic ones, following Murray (2009) and Peri (2002).

One of the most particular characteristic the IDF General Staff has, similarly to the Prussian General Staff are the debriefings. Following Senor & Singer (2011), debriefings take place on a daily basis, for either operations or exercises, including a self-examination even if operations are successful. In addition, sub-officers have more autonomy (planning included) during operations, having also a very adaptable mentality that enables creativity and complexity, at the point of finding solution to problems on their own while in operations (as the Prussian General Staff established in principle), which resulted in new tactics, like those designed in the field by tank crews facing the anti-tank missiles in 1973[8]. This is possible due to the value the IDF gives to flexibility, initiative and innovation. This characteristic is not perfect nor entirely functional or applied entirely, as it will be explained below.

But the most Israeli characteristic that permeates its General Staff system is the same cultural approach this country has. For instance, and according to Senor & Singer (2011), the IDF is framed by two particular cultural approaches: rosh gadol and rosh katan. The first refers to a culture of following orders under what could be an Auftragstaktik approach, while placing aside mere discipline and even challenging the chief or officer; this is the prevailing approach there. The second refers to mere following of orders. That there is a wide rosh gadol approach means that there is a lack of rigid hierarchies with performance being the main criteria and the reason for subordinates to evaluate and even remove a high rank officer. And this cultural trait played a role in two important wars Israel faced: The Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, as it keeps doing so now.

In relation with the Officers’ Corps, Senor & Singer (2011) remarks that, as the high officer ranks are understaffed (mind the abovementioned population limit), the mid and low rank officers are the most crucial piece within the IDF performing tasks normally a high-ranked officer would do, which benefits the IDF as it stimulates initiative and boosts operational flexibility. This was also critical for the abovementioned wars and the current operations. Combined with the cultural approach mentioned above, the operational efficiency of the IDF is maximized.

Two additional elements increase the impression there are strong similarities between the IDF General Staff and Prussian/German General Staff system, not to say some influence of sorts. First, the high sense of self-criticism and self-learning, along with the premise that mistakes are an acceptable source for learning and improvement, while avoiding ‘standardizations’ (Senor & Singer, 2011). Second, the importance given to technology. However, technology seems to be both an aid and a handicap, as it results in commanders relying heavily on such, losing the ‘sense’ of being in the battlefield and potentially hampering their operational performance when in combat (Senor & Singer, 2011).

Just like the Prussian/General Staff (and the German army), the IDF General Staff and the IDF were tested in combat, highlighting the latter’s qualities and deficiencies. They also provide an empirical example on how the system can contribute a military to address an intense crisis. These tests were the Six-Day War and the War of Atonement[9].

The deficiencies of the IDF General Staff system were very numerous, and at both command and operational level with serious consequences for the IDF performance in combat, which became very evident during the Yom Kippur War.

First, mobilization of reserves was delayed, rushed and disorganized, lacking also a proper alert as the control of the Sinai Peninsula meant that chances for a timely alert were reduced. Reserves weren’t the only units facing problems of mobilization. In fact, the armoured units and the artillery also lacked early warning and were slowly deployed given the same mobilization problems as such was improvised, worsened by the lack of decision (and even the negative by the Defence Minister) by the top-brass to execute a fast mobilization once the conflict started (Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009)[10].

Second, the astonishing victories of the Six-Day War and events during the Attrition War made Israel to commit serious strategic mistakes. It underestimated both Syria and Egypt, ignoring that Egypt (specially) began a process of evaluating its own military and the mistakes of 1967, thus failing in detecting Egypt and Syria’s hostile intentions and resulting in operational mistakes that will be explained below. It was estimated that Egypt would not wage a war until having recovered its air power, evidence of the sense of security. In addition, the 1967 victory also resulted in a lack of – crucial – self-examination or criticism and debriefing after the war, preventing the analysis of operational mistakes which were simply ignored, and missing the fact the Egyptians were not well deployed in 1967. It also prevented Israel to foresee the abovementioned evaluation and adaptation process by the adversaries, and their political aims behind a new (limited) war with strong diplomatic manoeuvres[11]. Overconfidence, relaxation, stagnation, arrogance and complacency were also factors behind the wrong assessment on the intentions of the adversary and the capacity of the own forces, as they were considered enough to deal with an aggression. To have some strategic depth was important for Israel (and even so nowadays). Yet paradoxically, the strategic depth the Sinai provided after its seizure in 1967 also reinforced the beliefs the Egyptians would not attack, as their airfields and Israeli southern towns were now wide apart (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009).

Third, operational mistakes with serious implications took place, which were many. For instance, the high emphasis placed on armoured warfare and aviation meant that a doctrine of combined-arms, infantry weaponry and mobility, and night-time warfare were neglected. There was an over-focusing on the tactical sphere at the cost of the overall management of large units in a general (strategic) context or even in the battlefield. Tanks and aviation were considered more than enough for any conflict, even to deal with the AA missiles. The armoured units also lacked good support by the infantry, given this over-focusing at the cost of proper infantry support and mobility, which took some toll on the tanks. Artillery was also hampered, which strained the same Israeli Air Force (IAF) and denying the troops proper fire-support once the IAF was affected by the Egyptian AA missiles. To make matters worse, mobility did not receive enough attention and forces were divided and uncoordinated (benefiting the strategy of the adversary and weakening any counterstrike), along with the fact that the supply system performed poorly as it was strained. The same Bar-Lev line became a problem itself, as it neutralized the Israeli superiority in mobile warfare when it became mere defensive line, and many tactical factors were ignored, like the sand-wall made by the Egyptians as platforms for attacks. There was widespread relaxation and discipline issues, with half-trained reservists manning the Bar-Lev line and accidents and negligence being the norm (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009)[12].

Fourth, the same military intelligence, enrooted within the General Staff, was riddled with mistakes and issues that resulted in the crisis at the earlier stages of the Yom Kippur War. The intelligence failed in providing accurate assessment and early warning to Israel; it did not provide the political and military high command with solid information, hampering a timely mobilization of the reserves as well. Even worse, it dismissed solid evidences on the imminent attacks by the Egyptians and the Syrians, preventing also the acknowledge of data on certain weaponry, like the ‘Sagger’ anti-tank missiles, preventing the adoption of tactics and awareness by the crews of the tanks prior the conflict. Even worse, the information gathered by the Military Intelligence was ‘accommodated’ so to fit in the preconception the adversaries wouldn’t be able to attack, strengthening the deceitful sense of security based upon a wrong evaluation on the adversaries, considering an attack would take place when their air power would be fully re-established. In contrast, the adversaries had an enhanced intelligence that was even capable of ‘penetrating’ the IDF at the point of having sensible information on the Israeli units deployed at the Sinai (Herzog, 2003; Herzog, 2006; and Murray, 2009).

And fifth, the political and high command level had considerable failures with a considerable impact in the IDF performance during the war. For instance, the political leadership failed in providing good guidance prior and during most of the conflict to the military, as well as to wage a counter-diplomacy to answer that of the Egyptians and Syrians, underestimating also their capacity to launch a new attack. Equally, the military leadership – mainly at theatre of operation level – also had important operational and command and control issues. It failed in defining solid and accurate solutions to the problems posed by the Bar-Lev Line, and it failed in assessing and associating correctly events at both the Golan and the Sinai prior the war, and during the conflict it tended to issue wrong orders[13]. Both political and military levels failed in detecting the political aims behind the war by Egypt and Syria, and even the deployment of AA missile defence system by the Egyptians while taking advantage of a ceasefire during the War of Attrition (Herzog, 2006; Murray, 2009).

Such mistakes are explained by a series of political events in the Middle East, which also led to wrong assessments and overconfidence. Following Herzog (2006), the first was the US support and supply of weaponry to Israel; the second was the US defence of Jordan as Syria intended to invade it during its September 1970 Civil War; and the same conflict within Jordan that yielded peace at the border between Jordan and Israel. Interestingly, the IDF General Staff committed another crucial mistake regarding the political context, as it seems that, following Herzog (2003) and Herzog (2006), it ignored the role of the Soviet Union’s critical supplying Egypt and Syria with weaponry as well as with political support, encouraging somehow the 1967 and 1973 wars and the regional instability. It also ignored the weaponization of oil as a mean to support in politics what was to be done through the military.

More in detail, the key political and high military level figures had serious mistakes that, if it wasn’t for the military culture of Israel and the General Staff system, would have had terrible consequences for Israel. Following Herzog (2006), the Ministry of Defence was having interest in some aspects of the armed forces (like frontline and operations and plans) but not in the more daily aspects, neglecting the aspect that ensured the functionality of an army. He also tended to leave most of the responsibilities to the General Staff and the Chief of General Staff as well as the Ministry’s personnel.  And during the crisis, he was unable to cope with it, as he was very cautious, delaying the mobilization orders, and unable to impose his will or reach a decision. The Prime Minister, in turn, tended to be authoritarian, doctrinaire and inflexible, not allowing alternative evaluations and exerting an unorganized style of government (Herzog, 2006). And the same Chief of General Staff was in part responsible for the wrong assessment, although he was also deceived by the wrong intelligence provided. The most worrisome issues regarding the same General Staff were those related to the performance of its different branches, affecting troops discipline, intelligence, equipment and supplies (Herzog, 2006).

But there weren’t issues only at the top political and military levels, as the field-grade ranks or unit-level command had its considerable problems too. For instance, and according to Herzog (2006) and Murray (2009), the Southern Command HQ (Suez Canal/Sinai) was the most problematic, as its commander was still in process of getting used to the scenario (yet this issue was due to the problematic policy of rotational command by the IDF, which limited the commander’s performance), being also the most sceptical commander at field level on the capacity and intention of the adversaries to wage war. He was also deceived by the wrong intelligence. But he was also unable to exert a good command of the troops thus being incapable of addressing the crisis and even contributing in immobilizing the troops at the Bar-Lev Line, worsened by the inaccurate plans the previous commander – Sharon – which consisted on the IDF resisting and then counterattacking as soon as possible without waiting for the reserve forces. And when it counterattacked, it resulted in heavy casualties as such lacked coordination and proper artillery support, as well as lacking concentration. Orders were also inaccurate.

The Northern Command HQ (Golan) was also having issues of its own, but were a fairy-tale in contrast to those the Southern Command HQ faced. This Command was having a very competent commander, but it failed in having a common HQ for the two armoured brigades that allowed independence but at the cost of coordination. Yet one of the brigades had an officer that also underestimated the Syrian while dispersed too much its armoured units. Here, the lack of infantry support to the tank units was also being felt. Nevertheless, operations here were more successful than in the Sinai (Murray, 2009).

As it was abovementioned, these operational and command issues were neutralized by the IDF capacities and by the same General Staff system, as well as the skills the high command and the single soldier had. The following positive aspects and measures taken during the conflict evidence the possibility of the General Staff system to neutralize or compensate for these kind of issues, as it was intended originally to do; this was maximized by the fact it was implemented within a proper (military) cultural context. The adversary also played a role in helping the IDF and its General Staff system, as it committed more mistakes than the Israeli alongside its own operational and command issues. Curiously, and following Herzog (2006), some of the issues in the IDF also had a positive role that sparked adaptation during the conflict.

On the chapter of mobilization and mobility, the Israelis were able to exploit their doctrine of mobilization of reserve forces, which fought well thanks to the training and experience. In addition, the high capacity for adaptation (with agility) yielded a positive outcome for the IDF during the war, alongside the focusing of the IDF in small units. The fact that the main HQ and the Northern and Southern Commands exerted no direct control over the units meant that they could operate with full autonomy and to exert initiative and implement ad hoc measures, despite the lack of a sort of Auftragstaktik, this also gave rom for improvisation during combat, as an improvised combined-arms tactic was implemented. This situation allowed units to ignore or contest orders that were not accurate or even disconnected with the reality of the battlefield, in 1967 and 1973. Each and every single unit of the IDF, from commissioned and non-commissioned officers to the most single soldier and tank crew behaved like this even without any support from the top-brass, thus changing the very adverse situation Israel was facing. Other factors such as skills, motivation, quality of the chain of command – after all – and the courage and perseverance, were factors that contributed to this (Murray, 2009; Herzog, 2006).

The top-brass and the unit-level command also contributed to the impressive victory Israel achieved against all odds. First, the same Chief of General Staff and the Defence Minister gave some warning. Also, the later assessed accurately the role of the USSR and did the right appointments during the conflict, while the former acting with determination by ordering a general mobilization and exerting a good command, let alone to send the right units at the right time and materializing an early counterstrike by thinking with anticipation. They also replaced a bad commanding officer with a good commanding officer at the Southern Command, prioritizing also the Northern Command, which was the most threatened. Second, the Prime Minister issued the military with strong leadership and good decision making (like rejecting the proposed pre-emptive attack against Syria by the Chief of General Staff), thus providing the military a clear direction of the war from the political side at least on that aspect. Third, Generals Sharon and Bar-Lev good commanders and high level of initiative, capable of addressing a very intense crisis (and despite Sharon’s tendency to have public rows with other officers). Generals Gavish and Eytan wer also cautious enough to train and prepare its units under their command for the incoming war and weaponry they would be facing. And fourth, the military command was able to exploit Egypt’s mistake of advancing further the Suez beachhead to support Syria, allowing Israel to exploit its superiority in armoured warfare and to counterattack, taking advantage of its offensive mentality (Herzog, 2005; Murray, 2009).

As it was abovementioned, the same adversaries contributed to Israel’s victory and the proper functioning of the General Staff system and its principles, mainly by their own operational issues. Indeed, as Murray (2009), Herzog (2003), and Herzog (2006) explain, Egypt designed a war with a limited objective while learning from the lessons of 1967 and taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of Israel, making use of a combined-arms tactic and training that focused on crossing the Canal and securing a bridgehead. They exploited the surprise factor, the Israeli overconfidence and misjudgements, and international diplomacy, focusing on neutralizing the tanks and the air power, the bedrocks of the IDF military doctrine, and attrite Israel while dividing its forces.

But as soon as war became unpredictable with its ever-changing circumstances during combat, Israel could exploit its adaptation capabilities, which the adversaries could not match, changing the course of the war in favour of Israel. As soon as the Egyptian and Syrian were forced to deal with unpredictable situations, their armies were required to improvise, to have quick thinking and take responsibility; abilities they clearly lacked. They were simply not prepared to deal with unpredictable situations during combat, resorting heavily on the authority given the rigid and inflexible mindset framing their militaries, and their strong focusing on planning. The IAF also contributed in limiting the Egyptian and Syrian advance, as it forced them to be anchored to the AA missiles; once the adversaries were forced out of these aegis, it had no problem on destroying the Egyptian ground units in conjunction with the armoured units (Murray, 2009; Herzog, 2006).

The example of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur war allows to understand the benefits and limits the General Staff system has. Many of the limits might have origins from other factors beyond the same General Staff system, yet clearly will end in affecting it one way or another. But the General Staff system – and/or some of its principles – fulfilled its purpose, which is to compensate for strategic, operational and command problems – even overcoming pre-conceptions on the adversary – with the Auftragstaktik, adaptation, flexibility, the independence and space for initiative at unit-level command and troop, as well as at high command level. It even led to victory when defeat looked certain. An ample discussion on the advantages and limitations of the Prussian General Staff system will be the topic of the next – closing – part of this study.




[1] This approach, having roots in the New Army Model by Cromwell, consisted on three main bodies: A Staff for operational aspects, another for personnel and administrative affairs, and a ‘quarter-master’s staff’ for logistics. Usually, the last two bodies worked as a single one, hence having two Staff officers. See: Johnston, (2008).

[2] But also, the implementation of German-like operational doctrines, as Corum (2009) remarks. See above.

[3] The French system is denominated by Johnston (2008) as the ‘bureaux’ approach at both high and field HQs, having four main sections: one tasked with administrative tasks; another with armaments, hospitals and engineering; another with operations and communication; and a fourth for HQ tasks. All were headed by an adjuntant general and with a Chief of Staff as main commander. By WWI this transformed into a three-branched General Staff, one for administrative issues, another for intelligence, and a third for operation and planning affairs. See: pp. 27-28.

[4] Many Israelis were of European origin, making the country and its military Western in essence, according to Murray (2009). This might explain why the General Staff system is implemented in Israel.

[5] For instance, the geographical context and territorial limit was very similar to that of Prussia, meaning that Israel indeed lacks strategic depth. This forced the IDF to have an offensive mentality, framing its operational doctrine and making it to seek for a counterattack as soon as possible and deep into enemy territory, so to decide the conflict (Herzog, 2006; Murray, 2009).

[6] This system would be put under heavy test during the 1973 Yom Kippur (or War of Atonement), mainly due to political considerations and the fact it took place during one of the holiest periods for the Israelis, following Herzog (2005), Herzog (2003) and Murray (2009). In addition, a partial mobilization in May upon inaccurate alerts and the economic costs of such deterred a timely mobilization prior the war according to Van Creveld (as cited in Murray, 2009, p.19).

[7] See: Israel Defence Forces. (2015). The General Staff. Retrieved from: https://www.idfblog.com/about-the-idf/general-staff/

[8] Yet at least one commander trained his units to face this particular threat, as it will be pointed out below.

[9] The War of Attrition, which took place between 1967 and 1973, was also crucial for the Yom Kippur War, as it was the conflict taking place in a very decisive scenario as the Sinai and the Bar-Lev Line were. Egypt waged very limited attacks to attrite and test the Israelis while seeking to create the conditions for recovering the lost territory, taking advantage of the static situation the Israelis put themselves in by relying heavily on the Bar-Lev Line (Herzog, 2006).

[10] See footnote 6.

[11] Murray (2009) remarks that such attitude is widespread, as the militaries worldwide are not that keen on accepting criticism from lower ranks and from people outside it. Nevertheless, self-criticism, self-examination and debriefing are pillars in the Israeli military culture.

[12] Nevertheless, and according to Herzog (2006), the armoured units were very crucial in the battlefield prior a good planning, suffering only a 25% of casualties by infantry-operated anti-tank missiles.

[13] Interestingly, and according to Murray (2009), there was no control of units in the field during the Six-Day War. Units acted upon their own judgement, exerting initiative, as there were no direct orders or an efficient communication system delivering them to control their actions.



Lt. Col. Corum, J. S (2009). Prefacio. In B. Condell., & D. T. Zabecki (Eds.), Wehrmacht – El Arte de la Guerra Alemán. [On the German Art of War. Truppenführung, Alejandro Pradera, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: La Esfera de los Libros (Original work published in 2001).

Maj. Eisel, B. (1993). An American General Staff: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA274042 on (ADA274042).

Herzog, C. (2006). La Guerra del Yom Kippur. [The War of Atonement, Gerardo di Masso, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores (Original work published in 1975).

Brig. Gen. Herzog, M. (2003). Introducción. In C. Herzog, La Guerra del Yom Kippur. [The War of Atonement, Gerardo di Masso, trans.]. (pp. 11-22). Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores (Original work published in 1975).

Israel Defence Forces. (2015). The General Staff. Retrieved from: https://www.idfblog.com/about-the-idf/general-staff/ on 25.06.2017

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: http://airforceapp.forces.gc.ca/CFAWC/eLibrary/Journal/Vol1-2008/Iss2-Summer/AF_JOURNAL-Vol1-2008-Iss2-Summer_e.pdf on 24.11.2016

Murray, W. (2009). Military Adaptation in War. Alexandria, Virginia: Institute for Defense Analyses. Retrieved from: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/dod/ona_murray_adapt_in_war.pdf on 26.06.2017 (IDA Paper P-4453).

Peri, Y. (November 2002). The Israeli Military and Israel’s Palestinian Policy. From Oslo to the Al Aqsa Intifada. (Peaceworks No. 47, November 2002). Washington DC, USA: United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved from: https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/pwks47.pdf on 25.06.2017

Senor, D., & Singer, S. (2011). Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. New York, USA: Twelve.

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 3a.

Image ‘170331-D-PB383-041’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.


The Prussian General Staff – influence and legacy (I)

The history of the Prussian General Staff is a very interesting one, being the product of particular circumstances affecting a nation having a strong military culture, as it was forced to re-adapt to the military and political innovations sparked by the French Revolution[1]. As Goerlitz (1985) puts, it was an important milestone as it established cooperation between an army commander and a military theoretician, becoming a trend up until the 20th century. And even nowadays with different shape. Therefore, it could be stated that the Prussian General Staff is relegated to a given period of time and only to the Prussian/German case, having no place in the post-1945 and 21st century world. But reality is that the Prussian General Staff and its philosophies are still impregnating many armed forces around the world, or they are integral part of their doctrines and strategies, directly or indirectly.

This influence, noteworthy to be reminded, took place even prior WWII, as many strategies and doctrines were based upon those of the Prussian General Staff, which based the strategic and operational mindset of the Germans. In fact, and according to Millotat (1992), the (Prussian) General Staff remains a strong sociological and political phenomenon up to this day and despite the German defeats, mainly due to the impressive victories achieved by Von Moltke against Austria and France in the 19th century. Furthermore, those same impressive victories achieved by Prussia prompted a global emulation of the General Staff, and even local, as Bavaria set up its own General Staff and War Academy, under the command of the local Ministry of War, although it was more focused on theoretical than operational issues[2]. Even the impressive performance of the General Staff during both World Wars, alongside the 19th century victories, prompted a request for Prussian/German advisors, according to Herwig (1998).

Nowadays, many armed forces have incorporated, adapted or modified many or some of the Prussian General Staff principles to their own armies’ General Staffs.

Germany: The Bundeswehr and the Prussian legacy

Germany is clearly the first example that comes to mind, being the direct inheritor of the Prussian General Staff. As Klein (2001) puts, the Prussian General Staff system became a very important foundation of many armies and their own similar systems. The Bundeswehr is clearly an example of this, as it is heavily influenced by the Prussian General Staff in two ways: its own General Staff is set upon most of the old system, and the philosophy of von Scharnhorst is both enrooted and applied as well. This is evidenced in the way Command and Control is applied, the same selection process, and the education and training of officers at a high military academy, with those officers having an advisory role and urging action to the unit commander if needed. At unit level – division, brigade and corps – the General Staff Officer has the highest position and is allowed to provide advice, to inform the commander about important decisions, and even to take decision in case the commander or his deputy are unavailable (Schoy, n.d.)[3].

This example is interesting not only because of the obvious fact the Bundeswehr is continuing the tradition set by Prussia in the 19th century anyhow, but also because of the way it works now and the criticism it has sparked. Following Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.), the General Staff is considered as a factor capable of undermining the commander’s authority and damaging the unity of the officers’ corps, given that a small but very skilled group of officers is posted at most senior or high positions.

Such critique aims at authority issues within the armed forces, along with concerns about meritocracy and its effects over an institution or a large group of individual part of it and their career advancement, with opportunities being supposedly scarce as very few would be able to meet requirements thus being a small but selected group directing such institution.

Yet the General Staff is, like on its early days, a helpful and beneficial tool for the Bundeswehr. It might be a challenge for the commander and the main staff assistants, following (Schoy, n.d.): First, the commander needs to know the General Staff officers, advising them not to erode his authority but rather to strengthen it throughout their tasks, with the General Staff officers enabled to exert Command and Control. Second, the same General Staff officer needs to ensure his advice is accurate and correlated to the decisions of the commander. This is a positive aspect. But a third challenge is that ambition remains, which results in careerism, with (adapted) officers focused on making a good impression to their superiors but not concentrated on doing their tasks, following Schoy (n.d.). This is related to the problem mentioned previously: the “courtesan officers” (or even high commanders) that are more focused on pleasing his superiors – either high rank officers or politicians – so to advance on his own interests, at the expense of preparing the armed forces to defend their country, or of providing a careful assessment to his superior or commanding officer. This ends in hampering the effectiveness, functionality and preparedness of any army, as careerism or “politics” are placed before professionalism and duty.

In any case, the current General Staff system benefits the Bundeswehr[4]. First, operational (and hierarchical) functionality is ensured by the emphasis on commanding tasks, training, education and mission-oriented leadership. This is reinforced by the instilled senses of obedience, discipline and courage, mutual support between the commander and the subordinates, and by ruling out bureaucracy and routinization. Second, the demand for independently formulated decisions for the commander following consultations with his principal staff assistant, and upon high quality advice[5]. Third, the same principles laid by Von Scharnhorst are being applied, with the best able to access top positions hence improving the quality of leadership; this thanks to the fact there is a General Staff comprised by a small number of officers and working at political and operational level of command[6]. Military organization is strengthened as a result, ensuring the quality of the officers’ corps by rewarding merit and achievements, making of the General Staff important for the Bundeswehr and any armed force. And fourth, Auftragstaktik and position weighting over ranks are maintained as well, with character, ability, mental power and resolution and initiative being essential elements (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.)[7].

These four factors also solve the critiques and dilemmas against the General Staff regarding the commander’s authority and the role of the General Staff Officer. They rebuke the argument of an elite of highly skilled officers endangering the cohesion of the officers’ corps, as selection process and changes for selection are the same, with an objective selection criteria. Also, the General Staff is an organic element within the armed forces, regardless of its particular nature. In addition, advice to commander are a core element, with the adviser helping the commander in dealing with the inherent complexities of operations through those same advices, and after consulting with the commander’s staff assistant. In relation to the “democratization vs meritocracy” debate, this is neutralized by the fact leadership positions remain open, with standards being high given their meritocratic-based process (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.). Furthermore, if quality is needed so to create a body of capable officers providing high quality advice, a very high standard is needed, even if it goes against the “democratization” criteria. This to ensure also proper functionality and effectiveness of the officers’ corps and the armed forces[8].

Equally important – and helpful too – is the principle of Staff Assistants (and officers, basically) to be aware of the world and the political, social, cultural, economic and ethical factors around them and that either impact or shape military affairs, just like in the times of Von Scharnhorst, according to Schoy (n.d.). Such awareness enables the General Staff and the same armed forces to have a good assessment of potential adversaries and allies, reaching a clearer strategic view. Another fact that is important and beneficial is that the principles of an officer being silent, unselfish and dutiful with political sensitivity remain, according to Millotat (1992). This makes sure that the General Staff is comprised by focused and well-prepared officers capable of comprehending the political factor that is intertwined with war.

Considering the previous presentation, it looks that only the German Army could be the only capable of developing and implementing a General Staff system, limiting it to that country only, given the history of the General System and of Germany. But, as Schoy (n.d.) remarks, the current armies are facing the same challenges as the Prussian army faced back then, considering that war is in constant transformation thus bringing more complexities to military affairs. Space, time and forces are all factors that need synchronization in a multidimensional and non-linear way, considering that pace is increased and information is abundant and dynamic. A General Staff system (and officers) helps the commander not to be overwhelmed by these factors, while providing a figure that giving enhanced decision-making through high-quality advice.

Yet Germany is not implementing the General Staff entirely. It seems to exist at a minimal size, with the system being implemented at unit level instead of the autonomous, big and important military institution it once was. In fact, the Bundeswehr tried to mark distance from elements that could have sparked some controversies as a result of assessments based upon historical experiences. The General Staff is being kept with a limited level by a small corps of officers and with the Ministry of Defence as the main commanding instance[9]. The Allies are also behind this, as they tried to ban the General Staff and the War Academy since both were behind the German ability to inflict damage to the Allies’ forces, fearing them and having repulsion as they considered them symbols of German militarism[10]. Currently, a Chief of Staff acts as the main advisory body and represent the army before the government, having also planning task. But operational command falls in NATO hands in wartime thus integrating the Bundeswehr in NATO’s structure, so to defend the national territory in case of invasion or attack. This means that the General Staff cannot be the main instrument of national defence nor to have the scale it once had; but the figure of the Chief of Staff remains as well as the training of qualified staff assistants. And indeed, the General Staff Officers retain their advisory roles to commander without commanding roles, with commanders mandated to listen to them. Education of the officers remains separated yet NATO oriented, forcing students to think and act at both operational and strategic and military-political level. Nonetheless, Auftragstaktik and Von Moltke’s principles are still implemented (Gunther, 2012; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[11].

The United States: overhauling an army

The General Staff system could benefit any other army given its characteristics and principles. In fact, the US Army has been particularly interested in the General Staff system, as it considers it could benefit its officers’ corps and compensate for strategic failures or the bad leadership in high rank officers. Yet such interest is not that recent, as Von Moltke was already being analysed in the US[12].

The General Staff could benefit any other army considering its characteristics and principles. The US Army has been particularly interested in the General Staff model, as it considers such could benefit its own officers’ corps and compensate for the bad leadership in the high rank officers or strategic failures. But this interest is not entirely new, as von Moltke was studied by the United States ever since. As a result, the US adopted some aspects of the Prussian General Staff at army, corps and division levels – similar to Prussia – so to achieve a rapid, decisive victory for its military operations. This makes of the US one exception in contrast to other armies adopting the General Staff system, as such adoptions generally speaking lack many main traits like independent tasks and the special training and selection processes, the small number of General Staff Officers with advisory roles, and the Auftragstaktik (Gunther, 2012; Herwig; 1998; DiMarco, 2009; Millotat, 1992)[13].

The US example is a very interesting one, as it can be compared with the Prussian Army in the sense both needed re-adaptation at a point, and as it is one of the most interested in the Prussian General Staff. A first similarity comes from the fact that, like Prussia, the US relies heavily on coalitions for legitimacy and to be able to challenge the interests of another state or competitor[14]. But this interest emerged only after the US military changes it perception on the Auftragstaktik, especially when it realized that within the Prussian Army, the role of a small group of very educated officers was crucial, as they were able to execute complex tactical challenges. This resulted in the beginning of a strong cultural change for the US Army – similar to that of Prussia during the Napoleonic Wars – as it is based on personalities or conditions, instead of initiative by highly educated officers. Hence, Auftragstaktik was adopted in 1986 (and included in the manuals in 1993) as it encouraged personal initiative thanks to orders being not-prescriptive thus allowing freedom of action (Gunther, 2012).

This adoption of the General Staff system and its principles came as a result of needs highlighted by operational experiences. For instance, and following DiMarco (2009), experiences in Iraq made evident the need for enhancing the training of senior leaders, the need to address problems of mediocre leadership and to fill the gap since there is no professional body of General Staff Officers supporting field commanders. Also, according to Kaplan (2008), reforms are a product of operational needs faced by the US during Iraq and in the light of the War on Terror, as the new battleground within such context requires sub-officers and other low-ranked officers to have more power and authorization to act on their own, alongside intelligence supporting such actions. Sub-officers, in fact, where in charge of sectors very often, in an independent and autonomous matter, the same way their Israeli colleagues (Kaplan, 2008). Senor & Singer (2011) explains, however, that the US army needs a top-heavy approach (opening ample room for leadership issues) given its own – large – size and the very distant wars it wages. This results in particular logistical and command challenges. Not to say operational challenges as well. But changes are taking place on this area as well. This is also a challenge for an army with a long structural and operational tradition that acknowledges the need for reforms and changes similar to the precepts of the General Staff.

These challenges could be addressed via a General System, enhancing the field-level command. But it is fair to mention that such issues are not exclusive of the US Army[15]. Following DiMarco (2009), issues of leadership quality are rather a constant throughout time, which can be rarely solved; yet modern warfare can displace the main leadership as a General Staff can contribute in solving this issue and ensuring success.

This might bring the issue of the ‘military genius’. According to DiMarco (2009) an inspired and talented leadership equals better combat effectiveness, but no army is able to recognize and give way to the ‘military genius’ to be the main commander ever, being the few cases a very rare exception. Nevertheless, success of battle command might depend of that genius, enhanced by education and experience, and requiring only the existence of ability a priori. In addition, careful education, training, mentoring, organization and advising the brightest minds within the army can produce a ‘military genius’ enough to compensate a bad leadership by a given general. The General Staff is – unsurprisingly – the ideal tool for this, as it is the way for the best to have commanding influence and enhance operational performance, benefiting the US as it did to Prussia (DiMarco, 2009).

Regarding the issue of the ‘genius in war’, Von Clausewitz (1999) has a very interesting exposition about it, not to mention he is the main military theoretician who introduced such concept. By taking a closer look at it, it could be understandable the relation between such genius and the General Staff, being this one a maximizing factor for his aptitudes and abilities. Von Clausewitz (1999) explain that some activity with a particular nature – warfare on this case – requires special skills of comprehension and temper (that war more than anything else requires), which manifest through the ‘genius’, with such abilities concentrating upon himself and being rather an exception. But such exception might be frequent if it emerges from a people with high military spirit, and even more when a given nation is very civilized but bellicose at the same time. As war and politics converge, the ‘military genius’ is required to manage both spheres and understand the State’s politics, to sense the political relations of the State – I suspect both the inner and foreign relations – and to know what can be done with the available resources and assets for war (cfr. pp. 67-68 and pp. 85-86).

What is the place of the General Staff in this case, and how it might benefit a country like the US? Taking into account the explanation by von Clausewitz and DiMarco, and taking into account the essence and functions of the Prussian General Staff, it can be stated that: first, the General Staff system allows the military genius to exploit enhance his skills while benefiting the army with such, either by commanding or providing advice to a commander, let alone the education given. Second, the General Staff over the paper requires the officer to consider the political element among others, being also the place where both can be conjugated when considering the strategy or defence policies while taking account the political aspect of the State, both within and outside. The US, given its position of dominating power in the international system and of its democratic nature (which makes of politics a quite complex and delicate exercise), is required to implement from time to time operations and campaigns in order to protect its interests and national security, actions with high political impact in the US and abroad. A General Staff could help any military genius in the US army or any officer, be of high rank or at field level, to manage the political and military spheres for any operation abroad, enabling him to consider and address the political challenges of a given operation, for both domestic and foreign politics. Not to mention that such system would provide flexibility – or enhance the existing one – during operations, enabling also initiative for the troops and officers and their ability to deal with the unexpected, enhancing the optimal outcome and political-strategic impact of those operations waged under a changing nature of war[16].

Despite these advantages, even the adoption of the Auftragstaktik wasn’t that smooth in the US. According to Gunther (2012), factors like the mentality of a soldier tasked with ‘what to think and not how to think’; reliance on doctrines and drill (signalling lack of flexibility); initiative not being valued at the point of neutralizing operational initiative and manoeuvring; and the prevalence of procedures all remained almost untouched, hampered implementation of Auftragstaktik. Nevertheless, Auftragstaktik was finally incorporated in the 2012 US Army manual. It would be a very interesting exercise to evaluate it evolution and implementation, and to see it there has been innovations as a result, if it has enhanced the principle itself and what original elements were incorporated.

It seems that many principles of the Prussian General Staff are being applied by the US Army – or some of its branches – as a result of the abovementioned reforms[17]. At first, sub-officers address the superiors with confidence, being an important element behind performance. Secondly, the emphasis is placed on small combat groups, maximizing the role of sub-officers. Third, and very remarkable, a focusing on few elements for training and deployments, alongside low-profile incursions and the study by both sub-officers and officers on their own initiative of wars similar to wars and operations they are executing (Kaplan, 2008)[18].

In addition, the US Army is further implementing the 1986 and 1993 reforms. A first is the increased inter-operation between services or branches. A second, the decreasing vertical approach and increased focusing on brigades, reducing bureaucracy and saturation of higher ranks, allowing lower ranks to adapt more easily to a given situation during operations. Technology is a factor, as the Stryker armoured vehicles enables increased autonomy to sub-officers and enhanced relations between them and the heads of battalions (at their HQ). The increased implementation of the ‘special forces-model’ and of networked intelligence, also allows more freedom of action and initiative (Kaplan, 2008)[19].

Overall, the US is the most recent and palpable example of how the General Staff system is being implemented at its fullest or in some parts, and more because of operational experiences than the idea of transitioning into a Prussian-styled operational command. But there are other remarkable examples besides the German and the American cases. Nations like Great Britain, France, Russia and the Soviet Union, and Israel are among the most remarkable cases where parts of the General Staff system and philosophies were adopted, or adapted according to their needs and context, with some cases even adding elements of their own or having a “special touch” when putting in practice this system. Experiences also resulted to be valuable lecturers for those nations, thus prompting the adoption of the Prussian General Staff system as a whole or partially. Those are the cases for the next part.





[1] It must be reminded that the same Prussian General Staff emerged as an adaptation and response process to those same changes introduced by France given the peculiar nature of its own political process (than impregnated its military) in the period. It also emerged as the reaction by reformists within the Prussian Army to replicate the same French novelties and to exploit the potential of skilled junior officers, placing training, identification, education and mentoring as the way to give the Prussian Army enhanced responsiveness (DiMarco, 2009; Schoy, n.d.).

[2] It seems that the Prussian Army, the embryo of the General Staff, was a model for the early revolutionary France, according to Goerlitz (1985). It is also important to point out that Bavaria, Saxony and Würtemberg kept their own armies, yet subjected to the German Imperial Army, as a product of special concessions given to these Länders, so to facilitate their integration into the Empire. See: Guillen, 1973, p.8.

[3] He is also required to inform the General Staff about relevant decisions advised to the commander, following Schoy (n.d.).

[4] In fact, all service branches of the German Armed Forces have their own General Staff with their own education systems, all aimed at preparing the officers for General/Admiral Staff tasks in an independent and responsible manner during peacetime or wartime, and also for NATO-level duties, according to Millotat (1992).

[5] Furthermore, the General Staff Officer is to be held accountable for his advices and his responsibilities on this sense, as his advice is to be based upon qualified reasoning and thought, instead of mere wishful thinking, according to Millotat (1992).

[6] Other principles still maintained are those of valour, veracity, critical judgement, objectivity and intellectual versatility; personal force, self-control and sound esteem. The conformation of meetings and associations, just like in the early times of the Prussian General Staff, are also maintained (Millotat, 1992).

[7] This is also strengthened by the fact that, like the original General Staff and under Scharnhorst’s, the best minds are cultivated through studies on historical experiences (so to absorb the lessons of past wars) and other military issues, aiming at providing a safety against mediocre leadership or to provide responsiveness should adversity is present. It also enhances the benefits of highly skilled and flexible officers with initiative, capable enough to ensure operational success (DiMarco, 2006; Millotat, 1992).

[8] The German Army in fact tried to reduce the required time for training for Staff Officers in the light of “democratization” and equal opportunity, yet it maintained the principle of merit above any other consideration for General Staff Officers, according to Millotat (1992).

[9] One of those experiences was the high degree of political power the General Staff acquired prior and during WWII, with strong debates sparking in Germany after the war as many considered a General Staff was unnecessary in a democratic state, being also elitist and thus against democracy itself, following Millotat (1992).

[10] In fact, and according to Millotat (1992), the General Staff was basically irrelevant during WWII. It was also banned or hampered after both World Wars.

[11] The value Auftragstaktik has for freedom of action is clearly valued, with such becoming a standard for other armed forces, according to Millotat (1992).

[12] The US was having already a General Staff system of their own by WWI, based upon the French model (see footnote XX), according to Johnston (2008). Cfr. p. 28.

[13] The US used many principles of the General Staff to be incorporated within its financial and management system, following Millotat (1992).

[14] See also: Kaplan, 2008, p.486.

[15] In fact, the US Army enjoyed a considerable degree of success thanks to a superior staff work that managed to compensate for poor leadership, and managed to ensure best use of resources. Still the War College and the same US Staff are both underrated and not sufficient, with the last one lacking independence and having instead a mere supplementary role (DiMarco, 2009).

[16] Cfr, Ellis, 1993, pp. 39-41. A full detailed explanation of the benefits the General Staff would have will be the topic for the last part.

[17] The US Army received some primeval influence of the Prussian style of warfare back in the Independence War, as the Prussian baron and officer Friedrich von Steuben made of the nascent army an army of sub-officers, with a de-centralized command where basic commands were decomposed through the chain of command. Cfr. Kaplan, 2008, p.20.

[18] Those wars are the Indian Wars, according to Kaplan (2008), as they were having ambushes, skirmishes and sudden strikes.

[19] The United States Marine Corps (USMC) is the maximum expression of this dynamic, as it is cored by sub-officers with a good amount of experience and leadership skills, with units depending on sergeants and corporals, following Kaplan (2008). Furthermore, structure was not that rigid, and during operations or missions the higher ranks would yield command to low-rank officers, reflecting also the Prussian General Staff principle of rank having little weight when circumstances called for this.



Maj. Eisel, B. (1993). An American General Staff: An Idea Whose Time Has Come? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/get-tr-doc/pdf?AD=ADA274042 on (ADA274042).

Goerlitz, W. (1985). History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

DiMarco, L. A. (2009). The US Army General Staff: Where Is It in the Twenty-first Century? Retrieved from: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-us-army-general-staff-in-the-21st-century on 04.06.2016

Herwig, H. H. (Spring 1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Force Quarterly, 18, 67-75. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jfq/jfq-18.pdf on 03.06.2016

Guillen, P. (1973). Historia de Alemania. 2. El Imperio alemán, 1871-1918. [Histoire de l’Allemagne. 2. L’Empire Alemand, 1871-1918, Miguel Llop Remedios, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Vicens-Vives (Original work published in 1970).

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/Auftragstaktik.pdf on 04.06.2016 (AY 2012-02)

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: http://airforceapp.forces.gc.ca/CFAWC/eLibrary/Journal/Vol1-2008/Iss2-Summer/AF_JOURNAL-Vol1-2008-Iss2-Summer_e.pdf on 24.11.2016

Kaplan, R. D. (2008). Por tierra, mar y aire. [Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts, Jordi Vidal, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones B (Original work published in 2007).

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/115399/ichaptersection_singledocument/e5d57ca7-d0bb-4bcf-a3ac-9133f90c1578/en/01_01_16.pdf. on 03.06.2016

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249255.pdf on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Senor, D., & Singer, S. (2011). Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. New York, USA: Twelve.

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/259/181/82_schoy.pdf on 03.06.2016

Von Clausewitz, C. (1999). De la guerra. [Vom Kriege, A. Díez, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Idea Books. (Original work published in 1832).

Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIb)

Image: ‘80-G-7878’ by National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Released under Public Domain Mark 1.0 License

Destination: Fate. The battle.

The pilot detects his target: there it lies, a visible warship beneath his SBD Dauntless dive-bomber wings, having a remarkable wide red circle at its deck. He also realizes that there are no enemy fighters to stop them. He decides to attack, and orders his squadron to attack the warships and other similar ones that were also detected. The planes dive towards their targets while facing as only opposition the Japanese flak. In a full display of bravery, they execute their attack with determination and cold blood. When they are flying away from the enemy fleet, the leave 3 Japanese main aircraft carriers in flames, doomed to lie until the end of times at the bottom of the sea. but not only the Japanese carriers are doomed, as the attack shatters the aims of Japan to be the dominant power in the Pacific. The brave US Navy pilots changed a war and History with a dozen of planes and bombs.

Midway is among the most decisive and great naval battles in History, like the battles of Salamis, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish ‘Invincible Armada’, Trafalgar and Jutland/Skagerrak. Yet the Battle of Midway stands for being the first decisive battle where the airplane and the aircraft carrier decided the outcome of a battle – and even a war[1]. This naval battle basically represents the rise of a new type of warship, which back then was received with mixed assessments and serious doubts, and faced the opposition of those preferring the battleship over those that envisioned the aircraft carrier as a decisive weapon, displaced the battleship as the capital ship, according to Crawford (2001).

As it was reviewed in the first part, Midway became important as it allowed the US to guard the routes going to the east towards Hawaii, guarding also these islands, the naval base of Pearl Harbour and the American Pacific coast. It was also important for supporting any operations with the air and naval base placed there, being also a relay station for a trans-Pacific submarine cable connecting Hawaii and the Philippines. For Japan, it was valuable a prize to win, as it would allow the Japanese Navy to reach Hawaii and the continental US, providing also a shield to operations – and conquests – in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. It would provide also a platform for naval power projection to neutralize US efforts.

Considering these factors, it was a matter of time for Midway to become the scenario for an epic and decisive battle between two regional hegemons, that decided the fate of the Pacific War and of two great – naval powers. And it was the scenario where History would be changed, being the zenith of the geopolitical competition unleashed by the US and Japan, and the ultimate clash between Leviathans. And just like the encounter between the two gigantic mythological creatures, the seas (and the world) would shake tremendously.

A haunting air raid and a prelude

The Battle of Midway was preceded by another battle roughly a month, often shadowed by the Battle of Midway, which prevents people to realize the importance of this preceding battle: the Battle of Coral Sea. This battle is important as it meant an opportunity for both contending navies to have a brief and preparatory encounter, all under a set of naval operations that reinforced or diminished their operational capacities of either side, or simply pushed to commit all. And even this battle made one of the sides to have a wrong assessment of its opponent, which would be decisive in Midway.

As it was aforementioned, the Battle of Coral Sea was the very first naval encounter where the aircraft carriers became the main warship of choice, where direct contact between both fleets did not take place except the embarked naval planes. The battleship also played no significant role here (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011).

The battles of Midway and Coral Sea were possible thanks to an apparently unrelated event that would prove crucial for the Pacific War. This event was the air raid by Major “Billy” Mitchel against Tokyo and other cities 18th of April, 1942[2]. This air attack, performed by a mere dozen of B-25 Mitchell medium bombers which was at first mocked by the Japanese press, managed to instil fear and insecurity in the Japanese high command and main admirals. First, it managed to highlight the vulnerability of Japanese cities to American air power. Second, doubts were casted over the established Pacific security zone. As a result, many concluded that the bombers couldn’t have taken off from aircraft carriers given their size, but rather from an airbase in an island. As Midway became the obvious answer to this question, Yamamoto and the Japanese Imperial Navy considered necessary to seize Midway to prevent further similar attacks. It was also necessary to meet other objectives in China and near Australia so to stop renewed ‘hit-and-run’ American, and cut supply lines between the US and Australia. The Japanese were conscious of the value of Australia as a forward base for the US to retake the Pacific, along with the fact that General Mac Arthur was actually based there, hence the importance of isolating it (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Thomas, 2007).

The ‘Operation MO’ was hence devised, aiming at attacking the Tulagi, the Salomon Islands and Port Moresby; with New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa to be targeted so to besiege Australia. The Japanese Imperial Navy advanced towards the targeted areas, dividing its forces, but unaware that the US Navy was ready thanks to its intelligence services. The Battle of Coral Sea started in consequence: when the Japanese seized Tulagi, the USS Yorktown attacked, while the USS Lexington attacked the Japanese convoy. After this, the Japanese decided to look for the American aircraft carriers to no avail, as both fleets were not able to detect each other. Mistaken sightings by both sides, whose planes thought they detected the main fleets, led to ineffective attacks and sinking of tankers and destroyers mistaken for battleships and aircraft carriers (Gibelli, 1972, Canales y del Rey, 2016).

At a point, both fleets detected each other, unleashing the first aircraft carrier battle in History: The Japanese carriers Shoho, Zuikaku and Shokaku fought the US carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown. The result of the battle is hard to determine at first sight, as the US Navy clearly took a comparatively hard rate of losses, by losing the USS Lexington and having the USS Yorktown severely damaged, considering the US Navy was short of aircraft carriers. The Japanese managed to weak the US Navy further, yet they missed an opportunity to destroy the US naval forces deployed thanks to the indecision by the Japanese commanding officer to pursue the American warships. This mistake would have severe consequences for the Japanese in Midway[3]. But the Japanese suffered the loss of the light aircraft carrier Shoho, and with the Zuikaku and the Shokaku having lost most of their air wings, hence being neutralized, even more as the last one suffered heavy damages. Tactically, the Japanese were clearly victorious. But in a strategic sense, the Americans managed to ward off Japan and to neutralize its aims of landing in New Guinea and block Australia, as Japanese air superiority was neutralized and the landings were forced to be cancelled (Cau, 2011; Canales & del Rey, 2016; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969). That is one of the important elements the Battle of Coral Sea had.

Yet there were other factors behind this battle’s importance for the Battle of Midway. For instance, the battle provided the US Navy with an opportunity to implement operational and tactical lessons learned at the ‘hit-and-run’ limited operations implemented in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; and to test its strategy to fight the Japanese. It also benefited the US Navy by providing enhanced knowledge over its adversary, which would be crucial for the incoming battle. And as a last, the fact that two Japanese aircraft carriers were neutralized, denying them to take part in Midway, allowed the US Navy to face the Yamamoto more easily, as the balance of power was slightly reduced. The outcome of the power would have been different if the Zuikaku and the Shokaku would have taken part in the Battle of Midway (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Gibelli, 1972).

Noteworthy to remark, that the intelligence played a vital role in this battle, the same way as it would do in the Battle of Midway, as it alerted Admiral Frank Fletcher bout the Japanese aims and intentions, prompting him to gather a naval force to thwart such plans at the north of Australia (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

A Navy against the ropes

After the Battle of Coral Sea, and despite managing to dislodge and even neutralize the Japanese plans, the US Navy was in a bad shape to still face the Japanese on a head-on confrontation. It was already weakened after Pearl Harbour and the aforementioned battle further weakened it, thus facing the adversary in inferiority of conditions, having only 4 aircraft carriers in contrast to 10 of the Japanese. Yet it must be reminded that the fast repair of the USS Yorktown made it to be the 4th carrier, while absence of the the Zuikaku and the Shokaku, and the loss of the Shoho meant the Japanese were having 7 aircraft carriers in reality. In any case, even the two task forces assembled by Admiral Nimitz to face the Japanese Imperial Navy, the Task force 16 and the Task Force 17, were very small and having scarce assets. For instance, Task Force 16 was comprised by the USS Enterprise and USS Hornet, 6 cruisers and 11 destroyers; Task Force 17 was comprised by the USS Yorktown, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers[4]. Both forces were very small in contrast to the total force deployed by Japan in Midway and their supporting operations: 9 battleships, 5 aircraft carriers (one was a light carrier), 14 cruisers, 32 destroyers, 21 submarines and 700 airplanes (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Clearly, the US Navy was facing a dire situation, as it was at absolute disadvantage and facing a very resolved enemy willing to use his naval superiority to destroy its opponents, and expanding further while consolidating its advances. But as the US Navy was between the wall and the sword, it began to learn how to deal with the sword. Following Gibelli (1972) and Murray & Millet (2005), the US Navy began to wage some limited but important counterattacks in the islands of Wake, Rabaul and New Britain; at these operations, the US Navy learned how to match the Japanese naval and army aircraft. Also, the US Navy numerical inferiority was compensated by two important elements: the quality of the command, in the person of Admiral Nimitz, and the excellent intelligence service that gave a hint about the Japanese plans. As it was reviewed in the previous part, all of these factors were decisive in the Battle of Midway.

The Encounter: A Chess at the Seas

Operations at Midway were part of the general aforementioned plan by the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, so to tackle the American limited ‘hit-and-run’ type operations, including the ‘Doolittle Raid’ over Tokyo. As a result, the Imperial Navy would advance towards Midway to seize this valuable strategic outpost, and to destroy the US Navy aircraft carriers by ambushing them into a decisive encounter. The aims were to further secure the territories and resources recently seized, but also to seize Hawaii and seeks a beneficial armistice, destroying also the US naval power before its industrial might would change the balance of power. Hence, an amphibious force would take Midway, placed at the reserve force and under Yamamoto’s direct command, which included battleships like the famous Yamato. The advance would be in three axis of advance: a fleet under Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s command would attack Midway, having the bulk of the aircraft carriers; another fleet under Admiral Boshogiro Hosogaya’s command would execute the diversion attack against the Aleutians; and a reserve fleet under Admiral Nobutaka Kondo’s command having a couple of aircraft carriers and battleships, which would seize Midway after the US Navy destruction (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1974)[5].

The Japanese were positive that the plan would work and that they would be facing a very weakened enemy, as they thought they would be facing only two aircraft carriers and a navy diminished in firepower, heavily affected by the series of defeats prior the battle, sailing towards battle in full overconfidence. Little they knew that the Americans were not only ready to face Japan on an intelligent manner, but also that they were having a third, unexpected carrier: the same USS Yorktown the Japanese thought it was sunk at Coral Sea, as it was quickly repaired and put back into service. First, Admiral Nimitz was already informed of Japanese intentions and plans thanks to the intelligence services, being able to devise a proper answer while setting his own counter-trap and creating two task forces: 16 and 17, the former having the USS Enterprise and the USS Hornet under Spruance command, and the later having the Yorktown and under command of Fletcher. The surprise factor was lost for the Japanese as their plans were discovered, while advancing in confidence (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Nimitz’s was prepared to face the Japanese and not to fall on their deception at the Aleutians, mainly thanks to the work of the intelligence services that deciphered the Japanese code, denying the Japanese the element of surprise. His sixth sense contributed to prepare the US Navy to face the Japanese more efficiently, as he ignored the fleet of Hosogaya when a scout plane detected it, judging correctly that it was a diversionary attack and not the main advance force. He also suggested Fletcher and Spruance to take advantage of Midway as a ‘fourth carrier’ impossible to sink and reinforced with further airplanes and AA defences, advising them to concentrate on taking the Japanese aircraft carrier while avoiding the Japanese battleships. This evidences Nimitz’s – correct – recognition of the potential the aircraft carrier-based aircraft attacks groups to counter the Japanese (Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The battle began at 4th of June 1942 with two simultaneous events: first, the attack made by around 100 Japanese planes departing from all the 4 Japanese aircraft carriers against Midway at 0430 hours, that destroyed deposits and facilities but failed in neutralizing the base entirely, as the airstrips were left mostly intact and all the base airplanes were able to strike back[6]. Second, the sighting of the Japanese fleet some 1,125 km southeast off Midway by a PBY-40 Catalina at 0552 hours. After Midway was bombed by the Japanese, the American launched a series of counter attacks between 0705 and 0837 hours; this was the second stage of the battle, with the Midway-based airplanes trying to attack the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet to no avail, falling victims of the Japanese AA and fighters[7]. Another air attack at 0920 by the US Navy followed, having the same results yet forcing Nagumo to change the position of his aircraft carriers; this attack also gave Nagumo a hint on the American aircraft carriers position. This situation made the Americans to look for the Japanese aircraft carriers, which were detected by mere chance: when the American airplanes where returning from another unsuccessful attack, they spotted a lone Japanese warship, which led them into the bulk of the Japanese fleet as they decided to follow it. At the same time, Japanese scout planes detected the American aircraft carriers (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The third stage of the battle began when the US Navy launched another attack against the Japanese aircraft carrier from all the three aircraft carriers between 1020 and 1022 hours, though uncoordinated and with some airplanes – especially the torpedo-bombers and the fighters – nearly wiped out by the Japanese AA defences and fighters once again. This time, however, the attack would be benefited by three factors, thus being the decisive one. First, the combination of good luck for the Americans along (and due to) the mistakes of Nagumo. As it was reviewed in the previous section, Nagumo ordered the aircraft carriers to give priority to the planes coming from the attack against Midway, yet being undecided on the type of armament to install on the reserve planes. Midway was not entirely neutralized thus a new attack was deemed necessary, while his subordinates were advising an attack against the recently detected American fleet[8]. Nagumo then changed his mind, but only after 40 precious minutes were lost after the scout managed to confirm the composition of the US fleet, after detecting it at 0728 hours[9]. Second, the previous American attacks against the Japanese aircraft carriers forced their fighters to fly at low altitude and to be on low fuel and ammunition; this allowed the SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bombers to find no opposition and to reach their targets undetected until it was too late for the Japanese. These planes managed to destroy the best of the Japanese aircraft carrier fleet and the Japanese aim of expansion, changing the course of the war, as the Kaga, the Akagi and the Soryu were destroyed[10]. And third, Spruance’s initiative and aggressiveness that actually set most of the American attacks against the Japanese fleet: this attitude allowed the Americans to exploit their assets thus achieving an impressive victory (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The fourth stage of the battle was when the Japanese decided to strike back against the USS Yorktown from the surviving aircraft carrier Hiryu with two attacks between 1054 and 1245 hours, after receiving the shocking information that they were facing not two but three aircraft carriers, including the USS Yorktown. They inflicted several damages to the American aircraft that ended in sinking it, along with a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine that sentenced the ship, which sank at 0458 hours of the 7th of June[11]. This, however, would be a very short lived victory for the Japanese, as the US Navy counterattacked with the planes of the USS Hornet and the USS Enterprise, sinking the Hiryu at 1703 hours. After these events, both fleets tried to detect each other to no avail, with Yamamoto resolved to destroy the US Navy remaining aircraft carriers and Midway’s base with his battleships and cruisers, failing in that purpose as well. Both fleets withdrew from the scene. Yet adversity was not over for the Japanese yet, thanks to the decision of Takeo Kurita, commander of a small squadron of 4 cruisers and 2 destroyers tasked with shelling Midway, to sacrifice the cruisers Mikuma and Mogami that collided during the night while escaping from a US submarine that detected it. This submarine directed the embarked airplanes to attack them, sinking the Mikuma and heavily damaging the Mogami by the 5th of June. The Japanese left Midway in full shock after losing 4 of their main and best aircraft carriers, along 275 aircraft and 3,500 skilled sailors and aviators to an adversary having fewer units, and having in comparison fewer losses: the USS Yorktown, 1 cruiser, 1 destroyer, 50 airplanes and 307 men (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005; Pacific War Historical Society, n.d.; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969; Shepherd, 2003; Thomas, 2007).

Yet the Japanese were reluctant to accept defeat. Following Dahms (1974), the Japanese still considered possible to win the war and to recover from the hit received at Midway. But such optimistic assessment was met with the crude nature of reality, as the defeat imprinted a heavy psychological impact in the Japanese military. Despite of the fact it was still having superiority in quantity and quality of naval and air assets, in reality, the losses were heavier for Japan: it lost the best air and naval assets it had, which were hard to replace given the mentioned system in the previous part, the lack of enough skilled pilots and instructors, and the lack of enough resources to replace the material losses[12]. This was worsened by the fact that a fast and decisive victory was not achieved, dooming Japan to wage a long war it could not sustain. Even worse, the initiative was now in the hands of the US, as the Japanese shifted to a mere defensive stance, being reluctant to face the US Navy in a direct encounter until the epic and massive Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. Yamamoto also lost support for new daring and risky operations, and the Imperial Navy doomed to gradually retreat and lose territory – and warships – to the United States, as it lost its supremacy at sea and became unable to advance further at sea. Japan’s stubbornness in trying to establish bases remained as they tried to establish bases in Guadalcanal: the upcoming long battle there would finish what the battles of Coral Sea and Midway achieved (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The Battle of Midway proved to be very decisive for the war between the United States and Japan, as it changed the course in a definitive way, at the point that at least in the Pacific Ocean, it made Japan to retreat and lose territory to US advance, being a long and steady decline of the Japanese Empire that ended in its ultimate defeat. For the United States, Midway meant its consolidation as the main Pacific power, along the point in which it was able to stop the advance of an enemy that had the upper hand in the earlier phases of the war. Yet after Midway, the US had a long way to bring the Japanese Empire down and become the hegemonic nation in the Pacific. Nevertheless, Midway was a decisive victory for the US Navy that allowed the American industrial might to give the US the assets to emerge victorious. The eagle simple emerged victorious after the battle.



[1] Of course, Midway was not the first battle of aircraft carriers: the first one where these vessels were used, was in the Battle of Coral sea, whose outcome also contributed in the outcome of the Battle of Midway, as it will be explained below.

[2] Following Dahms (1974), the ‘Doolitle Raid’ also prompted Japan to reject proposals of common operations by Germany and Italy.

[3] The Japanese thought that both US aircraft carriers were sunk, as the USS Yorktown was badly damaged. This optimistic assessment led to miscalculations that led to overconfidence by Yamamoto and ultimately, his defeat at Midway (Gibelli, 1972).

[4] Canales & del Rey (2016) point out that the US was having only 19 submarines available for the battle.

[5] Noteworthy to point out that, as the Japanese were not having the Radar like America, they had to resort to submarines to detect the American aircraft carriers. This was another disadvantage as the submarines were in position with some delay, as well as the main force of Yamamoto (Gibelli, 1972; Macdonald, 1993).

[6] At the same time, a scout plane was launched from the cruiser Tone; this plane would detect the American fleet and become the eyes of Nagumo. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.). and: Canales & del Rey, (2016).

[7] This first counterattack was possible also by the fact the aircraft were ordered to either disperse or to become airborne and to counterattack or meet the Japanese attack. See: Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.).

[8] The inability to neutralize Midway was a result of Nagumo’s decision to arm some of the planes with torpedoes, in fear of encountering US naval forces, following (Canales & del Rey, 2016).

[9] These changing decisions had as a result that the ammunition was not correctly stored, but rather scattered in the hangars as well as on the flight decks, which were also full of planes; this fact alone maximized the effects of the bombs dropped by the SBD-3 Dauntless. See: Canales & del Rey (2016), Murray & Millet (2005), and: Macdonald (1993).

[10] The Hiryu was spared because at that very moment it was sailing in a more advanced position than the other carriers, following the Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d.)

[11] Interestingly, and according to Pacific War Historical Society, (n.d), the Japanese were not aware that they were attacking the USS Yorktown for a second time.

[12] In fact, and following Dahms (1974), Japan only managed to build 2 new aircraft carriers to cover the losses, while the US was able to build 6 main aircraft carriers plus 19 escort aircraft carriers.



Canales, C. &., del Rey, M. (2016). De Salamina a las Malvinas. Madrid, Spain: Editorial EDAF.

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Crawford, S. (2001). Portaaviones y Acorazados [Battleships and Carriers, José Luis Tamayo, & L. Martín, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial LIBSA (Original work published in 1999).

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La guerra se aproxima Australia. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.4. pp. 97–120). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

________________. Victoria estadounidense en Midway. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol. 2. pp. 121-144). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

Macdonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Pacific War Historical Society. (n.d.). Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Morning). Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Midway Counter-attack on the Nagumo Carrier Force. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Midway_attacks.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Vice Admiral Nagumo Feels the Pressure of American Air Attacks from Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/Nagumo_under_pressure.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Search for Nagumo’s Carriers. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM2.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. The Tide of Battle Turns at Midway. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.AM3.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 4 of June 1942 (Afternoon). Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June4.PM.html on 20.05.2017

_____________________________. Battle of Midway – Events of 5 and 6 June 1942. Retrieved from: http://www.pacificwar.org.au/Midway/June5_6.html on 20.05.2017

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe. (1969). Los primeros cañonazos. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 39–79). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).

Shepherd, J. (2003). 1942. In USS Enterprise CV-6. Retrieved from: http://www.cv6.org/1942/1942.htm on 15.01.2017

Thomas, E. (2007). Mar de tormenta. La última gran campaña naval de la historia [Sea of Thunder. Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 2006).

Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part IIIa)

Image: ‘NL82GA Douglas Dauntless’ by Paul Nelhams. Released under Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.


A clash of Leviathans

Naval warfare is very different than land or air warfare in many aspects. Mainly, direct encounters are in general at distance and can take considerable periods of time, moreover when new weaponry with longer range were introduced. And this difference with land warfare was little at least in ancient times, were naval encounters involved direct, hand-to-hand combat. Yet there are some exceptions, as many land and air battles have taken a long period of time, like sieges to fortresses or the Battle of Verdun, and the Battle of England, to name a few.

Another difference is that – in this regard is quite similar to air warfare – the same dimension in which it develops means that it can take at one specific location or at a large extension of water, let alone that the geographical and maritime characteristics of the seas must be considered. This applies to the immediate scenario and also to the more strategic scenario (a large portion of a sea or ocean). This means that naval battles can take from tens or hundreds of kilometres, something true as naval weaponry increases its range and that there are air assets devised for naval purposes. In addition, and in a more modern context, naval warfare requires consideration from sea, submarine and air-based threats, having a ‘tri-dimensional’ essence. Even land-based (and any land feature) threats might be considered if operations require a close presence to land-masses.

Another important characteristic of naval warfare are the types of assets it requires. This might sound obvious, yet it must be reminded that naval assets are scarce – and with high costs – that requires a very careful planning, else loses will have high implications with warships not that easily replaceable. The Battles of Santiago and Manila Bay, mentioned in the previous sections, are just a few examples among many. But there is another reason: following Crawford (2001), battleships and aircraft carriers are the symbol of a nation’s naval power, ambition and wealth. It must be reminded that WWII was a war of battleships and carriers, meaning that they were not only the main naval strategic assets, but the clearest exemplification of a nation’s prestige, whose losing or maximization meant a great difference between long-term victory and/or short-term defeat.

Basically, that naval warfare can be compared to the Chinese game of Go, for it means that controlling important parts of the sea provides strategic advantage and access to resources and valuable trade shipping lanes, or the possibility to ‘strangle’ the enemy, like the blockade against the German Empire during WWI evidences. Deception plays a far more crucial role here.

But naval warfare shares similar characteristics with the other types of warfare. It is equally affected by the fog of war, it requires careful and skilful preparation, the need to design good strategies and tactics. Only that the position of the enemy is far harder to guess or to know, along with the quantity of its assets deployed, and a threat from the air or under the surface are both a constant risk.

The Battle of Midway is one example of all the abovementioned characteristics of naval warfare and its rather particular conditions. A review on the strengths, assets and main strategic and operational doctrines of the adversaries might help in comprehending not only the nature of naval warfare, but also to understand why the Battle of Midway had the outcome it had, despite some similarities between both contending navies. Also, the Battle of Midway was the decisive encounter that marked the culmination of the geopolitical competence – and open conflict – between Japan and the United States.

The Weapons:

The Battle of Midway witnessed the conjugation 4 important weapons and assets that played a crucial role in defining its outcome, at the point of being all crucial to one of the contenders’ plans, even helping them to detect the aims and intentions of their counterpart. These elements, no other than the aircraft carrier and the naval aviation, the intelligence and the commanding skills of the admirals, captains, officers and commanders, they were crucial in defining the outcome of the battle.

The aircraft carrier

The aircraft carriers were developed at a large extent by the main powers after the Great War: The British Empire, the Japanese Empire and the United States. Its development was possible mainly by developments in aviation and in the payload that required readapting air assets. The HMS Furious, HMS Argus and HMS Hermes by the British Navy, and the Hosho by the Japanese, were the first of these vessels[1]. During the interwar period and by WWII, the aircraft carriers were enhanced to the point of allowing aviation to execute long-range attacks, outdating the battleships; the attacks on Pearl Harbour by Japan, the air raid against the Italian Navy base Taranto, and the sinking of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by Japanese torpedo-planes and bombers were a confirmation of their benefits over the battleship. The aircraft carriers simply meant a redefinition of naval warfare (Cau, 2011; Canales & del Rey, 2016; Crawford, 2001; Bergamino & Palitta, 2014).

However, and curiously, the Royal Navy did not give the same importance to the aircraft carrier despite the valuable experiences it had during WWI with this type of warship, being rather conservative and considering the battleship as the main assets for naval power, and despite having nearly a dozen of aircraft carriers. For instance, after the RAF was created, the naval aviation fell under its control and had a last position in priority, and there was a lack of admirals with knowledge on airpower. This made the British Empire to fall behind the development of the aircraft carrier and related tactics (Murray & Millet, 2005). As a result, the United States and Japan became the main nations in aircraft carrier development, as it will be reviewed below.

Midway was a battle of aircraft carriers, where the results of years of efforts by both the US and Japan were evidenced by two of the most remarkable American and Japanese aircraft carriers that took part. From the Japanese side, it was the Akagi, designed originally as a cruiser but later modified as a carrier due to the 1922 Washington Treaty, carrying 60 airplanes. It later received further modifications that gave its final ‘classical carrier-shape’ configuration, allowing her to carry heavier planes and lighter AA guns. This carrier was among the naval spearhead in both Midway and Pearl Harbour, being destroyed in the battle (Crawford, 2001).

From the American side, it was the USS Enterprise, which was the product of US interwar period designs and developments in aircraft carriers, allowing up to 96 planes, although the normal load was 90 warplanes. It became a prominent carrier from the Battle of Midway onwards, as it contributed to sink 3 of the 4 aircraft carriers deployed by Japan during the battle (Crawford, 2001; Shepherd, 2003).

The naval airplane

The airplane was another decisive weapon in Midway, as it ultimately defined the outcome of the battle. Like the aircraft carrier, it had a long and hard way to become an important asset in naval warfare, and it became the second factor behind the obsolescence of the battleships. Following Crawford (2001), by the turn of the 19th century, the airplane was foreseen as a capable and valuable naval weapon; in the light of this, the US Navy tested a plane to be used in a ship in 1911, with one landing in the USS Pennsylvania. The WWI and the 20’s witnessed a further development of the airplane, as it was used for reconnaissance and spotting. Even some airplanes, navally speaking, were used to explore, escort warships and chase for submarines (See: Livesey, 1993, p.142). But the crucial moment for naval aviation was the demonstration made by the then aviation Major “Billy” Mitchell, as he used an airplane to show its capacity to sink a battleship, by targeting the former Imperial German warship SMS Ostfriedland in 1921. The following year the first US carrier became operational (Crawford, 2001).

But the battleship old school was reluctant in accepting the rise of the aircraft carrier and naval aviation over the battleship, despite the evident potential both had. Nevertheless, attacks by both aircraft carriers and naval aviation during WWII, that resulted in the sinking of very armoured and armed battleships. As a result, naval strategists realized the need of air control to guarantee the survival of the battleships, relegating them as mere AA platforms of for shore bombing to support amphibious operations, especially by the US in the last half of the Pacific War (Crawford, 2001). Moreover, the importance of air power in naval strategy was made evident in many ways, like the US strategy against Japan: it had air power and air offensive as an organic part of its strategy against metropolitan Japan, going hand-to-hand with naval power (Murray & Millet, 2005).

It was naval air power what ultimately doomed the Japanese Empire and its aircraft carriers, turning the tide of the battle and of the war itself. A simple naval aircraft, the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive-bomber was the plane that sunk an empire, defeating the Japanese and halting their advance. It was armed with 4X 12,7mm machineguns at the wings and a twin-mounted 7,62mm machine gun, it carried a 454kg or a 227kg bomb, with a couple of additional 114 or 57kg bombs mounted in the wings. It could reach speeds of up to 405 Km/h. It became one of the most decisive planes in WWII, contributing to the most decisive US naval victories despite of the fact it lacked the flying characteristics of other planes, and sinking many Japanese warships; Midway was a proof of its capacities (Berger, 2015; Cau, 2011; Chant, 2001; Macdonald, 1993).

The Intelligence

If Pearl Harbour was a product of a skilled intelligence service deployed by Japan, the Battle of Midway allowed the US to defeat the Japanese on this field, at the point of being the Battle of Midway a battle of aircraft carriers and a battle between the intelligence services of both nations.

But it was the US Naval intelligence service the one that had an important role in defining the outcome of the battle. First, the experience accumulated by US intelligence for 20 years, time in which it was able to intercept Japanese diplomatic and military messages, which was later on complemented by information gathered by submarines and airplanes doing reconnaissance. Second, the Japanese raid in the Indian Ocean had an equally crucial role as the ‘Doolittle Raid’, in the sense that it delayed for two months the Japanese changing of codes, enabling US intelligence services to intercept and decipher Japan’s messages (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The support given by the British decipher services, was crucial for the US Navy intelligence could intercept a Japanese message mentioning an attack against a target denominated as “AF”. In addition, the naval intelligence service, by suggestion of Joseph Rochefort – and reportedly, Admiral Chester Nimitz, as he was positive the “AF” target was Midway – decided to confirm the meaning of “AF” by making Midway to deliver messages reporting any issue or novelties[2]. Midway mentioned a problem with the water supply, and later on a Japanese message was intercepted, reporting that “AF” was having issues with the water supplies. As a result, the Japanese objectives were detected and known, allowing the US Navy to disarticulate the Japanese plans of luring the US Navy into the Aleutians, as they planned a diversionary attack there, and keeping Midway safe. This also allowed Admiral Nimitz to devise a strategy to counter the Japanese plans against Midway and the US Navy (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Dahms, 1974; Macdonald, 1993; Gibelli, 1972; Ralby, 2013; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Japan also deployed its intelligence services prior the battle, only that it was defeated in the end, contributing in the sinking of the most valued Japanese carriers and the demise of the Japanese Empire. They set radio messages between positions in Japan and a fake fleet, so to cover Yamamoto’s fleet advance towards Midway. But as their codes were deciphered, the US Navy was able to set a counter-trap to both the Japanese Navy and the intelligence, fighting both back (Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993).

The Commanding factor

It is said that the human mind is one of the most powerful weapons in the world, and a weapon that any army could take advantage from. The role the Admirals and commanders had in the battle could validate this statement, as their decisions, capacity to design a strategy and even their formation were important in defining the outcome of the battle. And in a more general sense, it is the commander and admiral (or general), the one capable of defining and grouping tactical considerations, plans and doctrines for assets into an organic and comprehensive plan. His intuition, assessment and even capacity to guess the enemy plans, as well as to design an effective and clear response to such plans, can result in victory or defeat.

Of all the commanders involved in the battle, Admiral Chester Nimitz was the most remarkable. Not only he assessed correctly the place of the attack, having the valuable aid of the intelligence and despite Washington’s idea that it was Hawaii the real target, but he crafted the sound victory the American aircraft carriers had over their Japanese counterparts. This was due to his advice to his immediate subordinated commanders, Frank Fletcher and Raymond Spruance, on where to position their aircraft carriers and how to avoid the bulk of the Japanese force (Gibelli, 1972, Macdonald, 1993; Murray & Millet, 2005). But his contributions to victory took place even before the battle, as he kept all officers in their posts after Pearl Harbour, stating that a disaster like such would have happened to anyone, contributing to keep the morale and the combativeness spirit, following Macdonald (1993). It was his strategic and leaderships skills what contributed the most to make of Midway a remarkable victory despite having less assets than the enemy.

Spruance and Fletcher contributed to the American victory in Midway as well. According to Canales & del Rey (2016), Gibelli (1972) and Macdonald (1993), Spruance was capable of anticipating the enemy movements, having a very independent character that shaped his operational behaviour and that was exploited when ordered by Fletcher to attack, committing all and taking advantage of initiative while the Japanese where recovering their planes. This was also possible by his disregard for manuals and his decision to launch the attacks by waves, which were costly but effective. ‘Initiative’ is a word that would define briefly his character, and that initiative ended in maximizing the power of the aircraft carriers and the naval air arm. Fletcher, in turn, contributed in allowing Spruance to make use of his initiative and his operational behaviour.

On the Japanese side, Yamamoto and Nagumo were the most remarkable high and mid-level commanders, whose mistakes prior and during the battle doomed the Japanese Empire to defeat. Regarding Isoroku Yamamoto, he was very skilled and had the valuable input of knowing the Americans well, thus being able to assess them correctly. But Yamamoto went to battle full in overconfidence and underestimated the Americans, as he thought the US Navy was having only 2 aircraft carriers and that it would be weakened by the effects of previous defeats. He considered that Midway would be an astonishing victory, despite the fact that the damaged carriers from the previous battle (Coral Sea) were not repaired, and that he lacked the same amount information Nimitz had on the enemy forces. And that the US Navy was already on alert. Moreover, he made the wrong decision of choosing Chuichi Nagumo, as he was skilled in torpedo war but not for aircraft carrier operations (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Cau, 2011; Macdonald, 1993). He failed in not knowing well his enemy and underestimating it, this were his most terrible mistakes.

Yamamoto’s mistakes were of strategic nature, but Nagumo’s mistakes were of tactical nature. First of all, he decided to stick to the manuals, as Japanese manuals stated that half of the reserve planes was to be kept, while waiting for the first wave, so to send a full force. Second, he was undecided – given his age – thus freezing operations for a crucial amount of time after the US forces were spotted, and ordering various times a change of armament of the airplanes. The result were aircraft carriers’ decks full of planes, oil and ammunition, vulnerable to the hit of a single bomb. And third, he approved plans without careful analysis (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Macdonald, 1993).

The fleets:

The Fleet of the Rising Sun

As it was aforementioned, Japan and the US were the main nations in developing the aircraft carrier and tactics in the interwar period.

In fact, Japan gave priority to the aircraft carriers and naval aviation. This resulted in naval aviation personnel and assets to be very skilled and well-trained, just like the Navy, constituting an elite within the Japanese armed forces. Its fleet of 10 aircraft carriers were the core of the naval aviation, which was complemented by land-based naval aviation. This enabled Japan to gain impressive victories and conquests up until Midway (Cau, 2011; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The Japanese aircraft carrier was supported by other policies oriented at making the Navy a good instrument for materializing Japan’s strategic objectives, which was the third in rank and having the most skilled and capable personnel of all the services, being an elite and capable for night time combat. The warships were also very advanced and modern, built after Japan denounced the Washington Treaty, updating and enhancing their tactics, and creating also fast and well-armed new warships or simply modernizing old battleships (Murray & Millet, 2005)[3][4].

But the Japanese Navy and naval aviation were having four main drawbacks, that would have important incidence in the Battle of Midway, not to say that they made Japan to take the worst part of the outcome. First, the same elite essence of the Navy personnel, which was prone to fatigue and vulnerable to losses, as they were a very valuable yet scarce asset: quality had to be sacrificed to cover the losses. Second, the industrial base over which it was based, as it was rather fragile and incapable of supporting a long-term war: scarce resources and competition with the army over the same resources meant that Japan would find difficult to replace losses (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Third, a drawback of political nature, which shaped the essence, strengths and capacity of the Japanese Navy, but also its weaknesses, in fact, the latter would be highlighted during the battle. Lack of constant policies and the civil-military disputes weakened the Japanese Navy from within, and the abovementioned Navy and Army competition resulted in uncoordinated policies, which in turn resulted in uncoordinated strategies and operations. They had no unified strategic view, having instead different assessed enemies, priorities and areas of operations. The Army’s strong influence and political power hampered the Navy’s strategic policies and operations; for instance, the victorious campaign towards the South was mainly an Army’s campaign, with the Navy playing a secondary role. The army also gave little support to further naval operations in 1942 (and despite its impressive performance and victories) (Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007).

Fourth, a drawback of military nature. If the political problems weakened the Navy from within, the military issues neutralized its operational advantages for instance, Midway was a battle riddled with mistakes. The aircraft carriers were still undervalued by the still prevailing old battleship school; the Navy was not able to keep its codes from being deciphered by the adversary; it lacked escort aircraft carriers; and submarine and antisubmarine warfare was simply not considered (Kennedy, 2007)[5].

And fifth, the same Japanese economy and its heavy dependence on foreign raw materials and resources. This was the result of a sort of cycle that emerged from the same Japanese policies and needs. Japan’s economy was strong up until the first post-war, when the first economies woes began to trouble the government. As a solution, territorial expansion and exploitation of East Asian markets were decided, requiring the creation of military assets to materialize that expansion and grant the needed economic solidness. This led to an increased dependence on raw materials and on foreign exchange, thus increasing the debt to finance the rearmament; this also forced Japan to attack Western colonies to secure additional resources and enhance its economic stability. But as Japan expanded in Asia, it drawn US attention resulting in further embargoes. This made some Navy officers, politicians and men from the Army to unsuccessfully negotiate a lifting of the embargo, given the heavy influence of the Army and those on favour of territorial expansion. It also forced Japan to advance further (Canales & del Rey, 2016; Dahms, 1974; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The Eagle’s Fleet

The US gave equally importance to the aircraft carriers and naval aviation, not to mention the Navy itself. The efforts in the development of its own carrier resulted in the US having the most capable aircraft carriers in the war, mainly thanks to four elements. First, the development by the US Navy of tactical-operational and technical aspects of aircraft operations. Second, the appointment of Admiral William Moffet, whose leadership resulted in boosting the aircraft carrier fleet. Third, the decision by the US Congress to enable airmen to have command over aircraft carriers and Navy’s air bases. Fourth, drills and tests contributing in shaping the size and capacity of the aircraft carriers, as the experiences evidenced the benefits embarked aviation would have if deployed in large groups, along the introduction of landing gear and instruments in both the aircraft carriers and airplanes, maximizing their operational efficiency. The types of engines for the airplanes were shaped by experiments on deck, resulting in the US Navy having air assets with good performance and easy maintenance. And exercises in supporting amphibious operations by the aircraft carrier air wings evidenced the benefits they would have in supporting such operations, let alone the offensive power of aviation (Murray & Millet, 2005).

There were another factors that gave further strength to the US Navy to face and answer back Japan, despite the heavy losses suffered in the six months after Pearl Harbour. First, the same US Navy structure. Second, the close work with the Marine Corps during the interwar period to device a coordinated and complementary strategy and assets when facing Japan, with the close co-operation and air support between the amphibious troops and the aircraft carrier aviation. Second, the political support given by the US government, benefiting the Navy in general as it supported the construction of new warships – aircraft carriers included – and the creation of a naval aviation force, mainly under the Navy Second to None law. Third, as the importance of naval airpower became clear, the US Navy gave considerable emphasis to AA defences and tactics to take maximum advantage of embarked aviation. Fourth, the same US industrial and economic might, which allowed the US to wage two wars in different scenarios, and also to absorb and replace the losses rather easily, unlike Japan and its very weak industrial base[6].  And fifth, the Washington Treaty not only served to momentarily halt the expanding Japanese naval power; it also served the US to reduce its land armed forces and invest more in both the Air Force and the Navy, thus implementing the abovementioned naval construction programmes (Kennedy, 2007; Murray and Millet, 2005). All of these factors would play in favour of the US during the battle.

Both forces, and their aircraft carriers, would have their ultimate encounter in the Battle of Midway, having a sort of warm-up in the previous Battle of Coral Sea: this battle in particular had an important role as it gave the last elements whose influence would be crucial for the outcome of Midway. Both battles will be the topic of the next section, considering the importance the Battle of Coral Sea had for the Battle of Midway, and that both were the first naval battles were the aircraft carriers played the main role. And also, to realize how crucial where the assets and weapons deployed by both contenders in the battle(s).




[1] In fact, Japan was the first in appreciating the use of the heavy aircraft carrier. Cfr: Macdonald, 1993, p-64.

[2] Other potential targets were ordered to report problems as well, so to detect clearly which was the target designated as “AF” by the Japanese (Macdonald, 1993).

[3] Japan even built warships well above of what the Washington Treaty allowed in terms of displacement tons and firepower.

[4] The USS Yorktown, a carrier that took part in the Coral Sea Battle, was very damaged and it would not have been able to operate until three months after extensive repairs.

[5] Another indicator of the prevalence of the ‘old school’, is the fact that the Japanese knew the American aircraft carriers weren’t at the base, but they were deemed as not decisive targets – unlike the battleships – and not even searched during the attack following Canales y del Rey (2016).

[6] In any case, it is important to point out that, despite the economic and industrial might of the US, it wasn’t entirely prepared in terms of quality and readiness, according to Murray and Millet (2005). In addition, the US was still facing a very compromised strategic situation prior the Battle of Midway, which required very prepared and capable personnel and assets to change despite the sole economic and industrial capacity.



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Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

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The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 2a.

Image ‘ps162’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.

Image ‘ps162’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.


The history of the Prussian General Staff, reviewed in two previous articles, reflects how the Prussian General Staff (and the military) was connected with the development of Prussia (and even Germany after 1871 and up to 1945). The General Staff even played a crucial role in shaping it. In addition, the Prussian General Staff was the product of brilliant minds and the changes in ways of thinking, of social order and even of warfare, especially during the Napoleonic Wars.

In addition, the way how the Prussian General Staff worked was hinted throughout the review, as the contributions of many brilliant military minds (von Scharnhorst, von Moltke and others), though having general common origins and perspectives, added special traits to it, defining the way it would function. However, a more thoroughly approach is needed, not only to complement the historical review, but also – and mainly – to understand better how the Prussian General Staff worked, what were the main elements shaping it and making it to world, and how it carved Prussia/Germany’s most remarkable military feats.

How the Prussian General Staff worked

The Prussian General Staff began to emerge during the Napoleonic Wars, but it took almost half a century to institutionalize within the Prussian armed forces, becoming very prominent and crucial by the 1860’s, the decade in which the rise of Prussia began to take shape. It is by these years in which the General Staff had a more defined way of functioning, as the culmination of the ideas set up by von Scharnhorst reached their maximum. This, for instance, also shaped the history of the second half of the 19th century – in Europe – and up to 1914, sparking changes in military doctrines and strategies. It started, following Goerlitz (1985) and Schoy (n.d.), as the manifestation of a very needed modernization of the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars, by a series of reforms to allow Prussia to cope with France war tactics. And it was basically the tool that allowed Prussia to take advantage of many innovations introduced by the French Revolution (like popularization of war) and the Industrial Revolution, professionalization, flexibility and merit, thus mastering warfare for a century[1]. It must be reminded, again, that the army was an organic part of the Prussian state and its structure, with the army and the same General Staff being important actors, even politically, within the nation, following Goerlitz (1985).

Organizing an army, organizing the General Staff

Kennedy (2007) explains that the Prussian General Staff introduced a ‘military revolution’ (which also sparked a strong Prussia/German influence in European affairs). For instance, the Prussian army was implementing a very particular system of short military service, which consisted of three years of mandatory military service and four additional years in the reserve. Also, 7 annual recruitment waves, with 1 for the Landwehr (or national militia), were being implemented[2]. This militia was tasked with performing garrison and rear guard duties. Nevertheless, this system was efficient, as it provided Prussia with enough manpower to wage its campaigns regardless of its relative small population[3]. Needless to say, the General Staff took advantage of this organization and knew how to channel the resources and manpower given by such.

This organization of the Prussian army can be traced back to von Scharnhorst, who wanted to articulate the army into divisions (or brigades) as a mean to maximize the scarce resources Prussia was having back then, with each division/brigade headed by a field commander and having its own general staff. Moreover, the army was to serve as a drafting mechanism for the reserve corps (Goerlitz, 1985).

There was indeed a previous version of the General Staff, dubbed the ‘General Quartermaster’, tasked with recruitment, supplies and organization, and having some mid-rank officers acting as order couriers and others assisting generals in reports and data compilation. However, and unlike the General Staff that would follow, there were no military advisors to the field commanders neither it was a permanent institution, being established right after war sparked. Independence of movement was, however present, being a product of operational needs than the product of the army realising the benefits of such deployments (Goerlitz, 1985).

The General Staff itself, was structured with four sections: The core General Staff itself, comprised by four officers (senior operations, senior supply and administrative, intelligence and training officers); Adjuntant for administrative tasks and personnel issues; Legal, Intendant (medical, supply and veterinary); and Transport, specialized on transport and equipment (Johnston, 2008). This structure, noteworthy to point out, was the product of the evolution of the General Quartermaster until the General Staff itself.

Furthermore, three further divisions were established in 1867, whose taks was to monitor all matters of military interest in both Prussia and abroad. The first division was responsible for  Sweden, Norway, Turkey and Austria. The second division was responsible for what is now Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The thrid division was responsible for France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and America (Millotat, 1992).


The Prussian General Staff took advantage of the recruitment system, and by the hand of Helmuth von Moltke ‘the Elder’, it also maximized the potential the officer corps would have, as he took the most skilled from the war academy and instructed them in the framing of plans and in preparing for potential future conflicts. These plans were to be prepared and reviewed before the spark of war. As it was mentioned in the previous articles, independence of decision and framing operational actions under a mission command (Auftragstaktik) doctrine was one of the main traits of the Prussian General Staff. Officers were instilled to practice management of armies or groups of armies having the possibility of independence of movement and even to have their own initiative, thus acting while having in mind the strategic and operational objectives. This practice was, by the way, established by von Gneisenau, who introduced the method of issuing general directives, and enhanced by von Moltke ‘The Elder’. But independence of movement did not set a restriction on operational interdependence between units. Rather the contrary, the deployment of various units envisaged interdependence for the sake of mutual support an overall success. Similarly, combined arms tactics were stressed, as interdependence between different arms was of tactical importance (Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[4].

This tradition would play an important role for the German army after WWI, its survival in the interwar period, and the basis for the effectiveness of the army in the earlier stages of WW2. It was stipulated, under von Seeckt’s command, that field commanders would follow general guidelines while being free of any constrain, allowed to exert personal initiative under the frames of the mission (limits), following Klein (2001). Furthermore, interdependence and combined arms would be the basics of the German armoured warfare doctrine of the 20’s and 30’s[5].

The importance of mission command, or auftragstaktik, for the Prussian General Staff is such that it deserves to be analysed in depth. As it was mentioned before, this principle allowed field commanders to take actions upon their assessment of any operational situation, having always as aim the fulfilment of the main – strategic – objective(s), and being able to not strictly follow commands. This led to a decentralized command and control that was very effective when it came to wage battles and wars, having a considerable contribution in Prussia’s victories on the second half of the 19th century and even at WWII, even becoming a model for the current German army and other armies that desired to implement it (Gunther, 2012)[6].

Furthermore, the auftragstaktik allowed field commanders and officers to transmit and interpret the received orders, taking as a basis their perception of the operational situation they would be facing. This not only provided the abovementioned flexibility and room for personal initiative through decentralized command, but also allowed the army to absorb risk and failure, with the commander accepting responsibility in such a case, and his field commanders capable of understanding (and articulating) the aim and purposed means. This understanding was considered a crucial requirement by von Moltke, as it would provide them with general frameworks along with freedom for materializing the strategic/general aims. Equally important was for commanders to provide brief but sufficient instructions, with orders being equally brief and less prescriptive, so both field commanders and officers could act instead of waiting for orders (Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Millotat, 1992)[7].

Brief and clears orders (or general directives) were important not only for an agile execution of plans, but also to make easy the relation between the high commanders and the field commanders. According to Gunther (2012), the general orders were to be emitted by the high command with a general nature, so to allow the field commander to add details considering that they were closer and able to understand better the conditions at the battlefields, and even going against the content of the order if their actions were favourable to meet the general objectives. Moreover, for von Moltke, the commanders were to emphasize the purpose – through short, brief and clear orders – but not to define the method of execution, while field commanders and officers could disobey orders if they considered the situation required a different course of action, and those same field commanders to provide timely and accurate reporting to allow the high commanders to understand the situation (Gunther, 2012)[8].

The Auftragstaktik did not worked at its fullest, and many situations almost neutralized it or evidenced how risky it was for operational outcome. Following Gunther (2012), during the Franco-Prussian War, von Moltke was almost unable to stop independent actions by field commanders that threatened his plans for synchronization and mobilization. But that disadvantage also had a positive side, as those commanders seized the initiative – often without awaiting orders – upon their detection of French intentions and weak points and exploiting them, also able of giving feedback. Their action even forced the French to change their plans, dislodge their organization or making mistakes that played in favour of Prussia and leaving the initiative to Prussia. Moreover, this principle enabled the field commanders to detect and solve problems on the march (Gunther, 2012)[9].

Planning (for) the next encounters

The framing of plans was not relegated to crisis or pre-war times. In fact, and during peacetime, the General Staff would be tasked with studying new ways to organize war, devising offensive and defensive plans, counteroffensive and mobilization plans as well. War was to be defined quickly and decisively, with previous and careful analysis of problems, taking also risks while balancing initiative and caution (Cau, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007). This nature also responded to von Moltke’s transformation of the General Staff, which became less academic and more a command instrument, placing emphasis in mobility, speed and precision. The following century witnessed the General Staff applying the same principles even after a defeat, similarly to the earlier days back in the Napoleonic Wars. War games and map exercises were implemented during the command of von Seeckt, testing the junior officers and generals (Klein, 2001).

Meritocracy through education while learning from the past

Yet for most of the times, if not during the entire existence of the General Staff, education was one of the main characteristics and the reason it produced officers of high quality, as von Scharnhorst considered that the lecturer was also a crucial part in the process. In fact, the study of military history and past campaigns was one of the educational focusing of the military academies under the General Staff’s supervision, as well as studies on operational issues. Even since the earlier days of the General Staff, von Scharnhorst highlighted the importance of theoretical and applied disciplines, as well as of educating military leaders from an early age, thus making cadets to attend courses in order to promote them on educational and skills basis[10]. Reflections on military affairs were encouraged, making use of historical examples, as von Scharnhorst considered war to be a complex discipline requiring high training, study and training. Reading, furthermore, would enrich officers by knowing from other’s experiences and insights, with education balancing field exercises, theory and personal studies. Production and publication of the best papers analysing strategic, tactic and military affairs was a way to grasp and apply such experiences. Examinations were always a constant, even for re-joining civil life (Dimarco, 2009; Guderian, 2006; Herwig, 1998; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

This emphasizing on learning from the past became important in the last decades of the General Staff. This period (1919 to 1945) could be labelled as the period in which all of the characteristics and features of the General Staff, as well as the innovations introduced by it, reached their maximum level and allowed the Third Reich to achieve impressive victories at the early days of WWII. This was due to von Seeckt’s examination of the innovations introduced in 1918, innovations that were carefully studied as well as the experiences acquired during the Great War, setting the basis for the armoured and mobile warfare doctrines and tactics that would give way to the famous Panzer Divisionen and the Blitzkrieg. Noteworthy to remark that these new doctrines and tactics took advantage of decentralized authority and analysis and exploitation of the adversary’s weaknesses, not to mention that both were cornerstones of those new tactics and doctrines (Murray & Millet, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

Indeed, tanks were to operate as an independent unit, discarding the ideas of tanks to be used as mere support for the infantry, as the analysis and studies on interwar French and British experiences on the matter evidenced as the best doctrine to pick. And evidencing the spirit of the Prussian General Staff, problems and their solutions were detected and implemented on the march, with exercises implemented to test the developed theories and even testing secretly built tanks in Sweden. Such exercises and tests were also useful to spot issues and set a definitive configuration of design, weight and armament, as well as to validate the Panzerkrieg doctrines developed by the interwar-period General Staff (Guderian, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

The General Staff thus aimed at training the best officers or to put them into top positions so to improve the leadership quality, where the main aspects of such selection process are talent and merit or skills as previously mentioned. The idea behind the General Staff was to set up a system where those with skills, merits and qualifications would gain important positions and function within the army, interestingly with a ‘middle-class’ composition instead of sole nobility. Moreover, the officers and staff assistants were – and still are – required to be aware of world affairs and the different factors – from political to economic – affecting military affairs, following Dimarco (2009), Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.).

This selection of the best contributed in bringing back the German army to its feet following the 1918 defeat, thanks to Hans von Seeckt. In fact, the best ones were selected for this purpose, where again war heroes and most notably the nobility were taken as reasons for not selecting officers to comprise the new general staffs, as general staffs (at unit level) were allowed to persist by the allies (Chant, 1999; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Education was to be complemented with good analytical and critical skills. Following Schoy (n.d.), von Scharnhorst considered that any dogmas and rigid ideas should be scrapped, allowing the students to have independent and critical thinking alongside a receptive mind, capable of responding to the circumstances and unexpected factors and events during a battle. This, as mentioned before, was the core fundament of freedom of action under a mission command that would characterize the General Staff and the Prussia/German army. In relation to this, von Scharnhorst always aimed at compensating deficiencies at high level of command, with the establishment of unit-level general staffs and education, education that would produce selected officers able to run the army, and able to take decisions in the absence of the commander or to advise him on operational decisions. The commander, thanks to the advice of his officers, was capable of taking any independent decision. These advices were required to be based on qualified reasoning and thought, and not on mere wishful thinking (Dimarco, 2009; Gunther, 2012; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

Exercises and manoeuvres as source of learning

Field exercises were also an important characteristic of the Prussian General Staff, namely, war games and manoeuvres. Von Scharnhorst deemed them as important, for they would allow training near combat conditions instead of drills and daily duties, following Schoy (n.d.). In addition to war games and manoeuvres, historical campaigns and operations implemented by potential adversaries were studied. But the far past was not the only subject of study, as mistakes during exercises and war games were studied, which resulted in a readjustment of instruction, organization and weaponry[11]. This allowed the Prussian army – via the Prussian General Staff – to absorb and learn from mistakes, allowing improvements in many ways[12]. Also, technology and transportation infrastructure was important for the Prussian General Staff, with a special department for railroads within the General Staff established, in order to make sure troops and supplies could reach destination fast, reflecting how the General Staff and the Army were both able to take advantage of the technologies bestowed by the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, von Moltke ‘the Elder’, stimulated the introduction of rifled weapons, such as the Dreyse rifle. Similarly, journeys for reconnoitre (Übungsreisen) the terrain and possible operational areas – even abroad – were implemented during training (GlobalSecurity, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001)[13].

As it was stated before, the General Staff not only focused on the past. Following Goerlitz (1985) and Herwig (1998), the General Staff was in fact committed to review the military literature of the times, newspapers, journals and even parliamentary debates. The idea was to scrutinize the novelties in warfare, tactics and strategy – even new military technology – introduced by other nations, and to be analysed and adopted and enhanced, if necessary, preparing for the next war. This was something that would characterize the General Staff from its beginnings, making it to be ahead of its adversaries even after defeat: the armoured warfare principles and tactics are the most prominent example.

This, in fact, was kept in the 20th century, when the General Staff, under the lead of von Seeckt, would place special attention to transport, supply, organization, railways, air defence, engineering and command post exercises. Moreover, übungsreisen under von Seeckt would consist of officers traveling to other countries to be aware of newly introduced tactics and assets (Chant, 1999; Klein, 2001). This evidences how the General Staff was capable of intertwining even in the earlier 20th century, the operational and training aspects with the technological advances, making both spheres to co-relate and work as one.

War gaming

War games is also another aspect of the General Staff that, like Auftragstaktik, deserves special attention, as it became a sort of trademark of the Prussian General Staff and army, and in fact complemented the development of this combat principle, helping in the devising and testing of plans and doctrines. Following Vego (2012), games of this sort were already existing, yet it was in Germany where the modern versions of such games where invented and developed from the 17th to the 19th centuries, used for educating and training commanders and their staffs, as well as for rehearsing and testing plans for potential future operations. The special characteristic of these games and their evolution was that the pieces and the board were representing the units and the features – type of terrain, geographical accidents, etc. – of the area of operations, and the dynamics of the games served also to support the need for having general staff officers to advise the players/commanders in both the board and the real battlefield. Even von Moltke saw the benefits provided by war games for training officers, for the abovementioned testing of plans and as a complement of the Übungsreisen, thus implementing them[14].

Von Schlieffen took the war games development and impact even further, aiming at further testing plans and aptitudes of the officers in training and often reflecting the potential geopolitical and strategic situation the German Empire was facing back then: in other words, operations against Russia, the British Empire and France. Therefore, wargames were based on war plans, with the addition that they were meant to highlight any potential problem that could emerge. Even so, von Schlieffen reminded his officers to maintain initiative, for wargames would not provide predefined solutions (Vego, 2012). However, wargames did not escape to the biases and mistakes of the chiefs of General Staff. Following Vego (2012), despite von Moltke ‘the Young’ attempts to improve war plans upon outcomes of wargames, the lack of simulating the diplomatic and political context acted against this.

Nonetheless, defeat did not mean the end of the General Staff efforts to always look for quality and preparation. Neither it was the end for the wargames. According to Vego (2012), von Seeckt and others that followed him during the interwar period, took advantage of wargames and their potential for training, with an increased value for preparing the future army and officers in the light of heavy restrictions imposed by the Allies. War games also kept their initial purpose, but they were also used for preparing the army officers in mobile warfare, to study past campaigns and to improve the doctrines that were being developed during this period. During WWII, wargames were also used, mainly for studying on-going problems.

Technology matters

The importance technology in general would have for the Prussian General Staff would be a characteristic until 1945. Following Klein (2001), it was von Schlieffen and Von Moltke the ones that introduced this characteristic to the General Staff, as they made any operational and tactical calculus to include technological developments and innovations, even grasping the interdependence between tactic and technological advancements and the convenience of such relation in order to save lifes and achieve victory in the battlefield. Furthermore, this knowledge was applied to the areas of materiel and command as well. This grasping of warfare and technology would play its first fruits during the Franco – Prussian war, with telegraphs used to deliver orders, and artillery used extensively, let alone the introduction of breechloading Dreyse rifles and the utilization of railways through a department for that sole purpose within the General Staff (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Gunther, 2012; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

Needless to say, technology played an important role in the adaptations and preparations for the German army after WWI, as innovations in terms of tanks and armoured vehicles introduced by the Allies during this conflict were carefully studied, enhanced and built, resulting in the very famous German Panzers and their revolution in armoured warfare. In addition, German, allied and even neutral enterprises were outreached to develop the newly introduced hardware, and even to build, as it was the case with the tanks and the famous 88 mm AA/anti-tank gun (Chant, 1999; Guderian; 2007).

Smooth chain of command

The independence of movement and the room for the field commander’s own initiative is one of the proofs that the Prussian army was not entirely strict and inflexible, as well as the same General Staff. There is another proof that further evidences such flexibility: from von Gneisenau onwards, the general staff officers of the units were able to communicate directly with the head of the General Staff, even reporting directly to him and bypassing their most immediate commander (the commander of the units, following Klein (2001). Moreover, and according to Millotat (1992), position would weight more than the sole rank, with captains even being above high rank officers. This dynamic would take place not only in wartime, but also during peacetime. Later on, and under Von Moltke ‘the Elder’, the General Staff became very important, as the Chief of General Staff was able to attend important meetings where the Kaiser was present, and where important affairs where discussed, even being able to issue operational orders of his own (Klein, 2011).

The General Staff also connected the commander, his adviser or staff’s capacity to devise and execute plans, make use of forces and deploy them, and to make use of the geographical factors in his favour. All of this under the principle of flexibility as well. For instance, von Moltke considered that the planner – if he was the most skilled one – could effectively command the troops he would be able to mobilize, taking advantage of command and geography. Furthermore, ad hoc thinking was necessary in order to cope with the very unpredictable nature of war, considering how this nature would stretch pre-established plans. For example, it was required for the officers or commander not to base any movement on the assumption the adversary would do a predetermined move, as it would instead take an unexpected step. Therefore, the General Staff required capacity to react to such situations (Herwig, 1998). This, of course, meant that the commander and/or officer were to take unexpected steps of their own, taking advantage of the given uncertainty and flexibility when executing the war plans.

Von Seeckt went further, as he practically rejected an upside-down hierarchy, stressing instead that this structure was to be set aside, as combat was variable in nature with many different factors playing a role in the events’ evolution, as well as the very unpredictable will of the enemy (Murray & Millet, 2005).

In relation to the unpredictable nature of war, the General Staff also worked on grasping the uncertain nature of international politics, the changing circumstances and the identification of potential threats that would be emerging from that sea of chaos, allowing the definition of clear goals as Herwig (1998) explains.

These are what I consider the main characteristics that structured the General Staff, being also the main traits of its functioning on operational terms. However, the Prussian General Staff had other elements that shaped its work, being such of non-operational nature and located more at the philosophical, value and political spectre. Even the social composition of the General Staff – briefly mentioned here – defined its work and even its success. These elements and a brief discussion about themwill be focus of the next part.



[1] It is noteworthy to remind that Prussia was in a state of general stagnation, where reluctance to adapting, arrogance, and insistence on applying outdated tactics was the rule, along with bureaucratization (Schoy, n.d.; and Goerlitz, 1985).

[2] In detail, it was 3 years in the infantry, 4 years in the cavalry, 4 years in the reserve and 5 in the Landwehr, with the recruiting age being set at the age of 20. See: Cau, 2011, p.130.

[3] Education was, for instance, was another cornerstone of the Prussian Army, and indeed one that von Scharnhorst and other Prussian General Staff heads deemed important. But general education was also important, as most recruits were having basic education and higher levels, benefiting the tasks of officers to control, organize and supply the army (Kennedy, 2007).

[4] In fact, and following Klein (2001), von Moltke established the principle of “march separately, strike together”, where and in combination with state of the art weaponry back then, gave Prussia its remarkable victory at Königgrätz and the Franco-Prussian War. This also played into his minimalist approach on planning operations, the independence of command in war, and the mission oriented command (Klein, 2001).

[5] One patent example is Rommel, who in his memoirs states that officers of an armoured division must think and act independently, within the general plan and without waiting orders. See: Rommel, 2006, p.19.

[6] This fact alone does not explain the victories of Prussia and how the General Staff crafted them, as the reader must consider the other elements or characteristics of the General Staff (and the Prussian Army) here reviewed.

[7] Gunther (2012) even suggests that, as most chiefs of staff and primary advisors were not Junkers (noble landowners), their own independent actions were facilitated. On the other hand, detailed orders were deemed valueless as during operations, the situation could change unexpectedly and rapidly.

[8] Likewise, von Moltke considered that the commander was to be a person able to see through the ‘fog of war’ and grasp the real situation, taking quick decisions and executing them with efficiency and constancy, while considering his actions in an everchanging battlefield. See: Gunther, 2012, p.15.

[9] Gunther (2012) even considers that with the current advancements in military technology and communications, Auftragstaktik is still possible as a military principle. This is material for another discussion.

[10] Von Scharnhorst was clearly against promotion of officers on social background, connections or birth, according to Schoy (n.d.) and Millotat (1992).

[11] Experience was defined as important, at the point of being the basis of theory. Hence the equally importance of studying history for the officer’s judgement when it was needed to (Schoy, n.d.).

[12] Even victorious campaigns were subject to hard examination, as it was the case of the Franco-Prussian War, according to Herwig (1998).

[13] Von Scharnhorst in fact stated that “a properly instructed, theoretically and practically trained and practiced general staff is a necessary requirement for every power abroad” (as cited in Klein, 2001). This explains why the Prussian General Staff deemed important education and the implementation of the acquired knowledge via the framing of plans and executing war games and manoeuvres.

[14] See also: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.209.



Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Chant, C. (1999). La Maquinaria de Guerra Nazi. [The Nazi War Machine, Macarena Rojo Gonzalez, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Agata (Original work published in 1996).

DiMarco, L. A. (2009). The US Army General Staff: Where Is It in the Twenty-first Century? Retrieved from: http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-us-army-general-staff-in-the-21st-century on 04.06.2016

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/115399/ichaptersection_singledocument/e5d57ca7-d0bb-4bcf-a3ac-9133f90c1578/en/01_01_16.pdf. on 03.06.2016

GlobalSecurity.org. (2011). German Military Railways. Globalsecurity.org. Retrieved from: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/de-kaiserliche-bahn.htm on 24.11.2016

Gral. Guderian, H. (2007). Recuerdos de un Soldado. [Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Luis Pumarola Alaiz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores S.L. (Original work published in 1952).

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/Auftragstaktik.pdf on 04.06.2016 (Monography AY 2012-02)

Herwig. H. H. (1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Forces Quarterly, Spring 1998 (18). Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jfq/jfq-18.pdf on 04.06.2016

Jackson, R. (2012). Panzer: Modelle aus aller Welt von 1915 bis Heute. [Ralf Burau, trans.]. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Maj. Johnston, P. (2008). Staff Systems and the Canadian Air Force: Part 1. History of the Western Staff System. The Canadian Air Force Journal, Summer 2008, 1(2), 20-30. Retrieved from: http://airforceapp.forces.gc.ca/CFAWC/eLibrary/Journal/Vol1-2008/Iss2-Summer/AF_JOURNAL-Vol1-2008-Iss2-Summer_e.pdf on 24.11.2016

Kennedy, P. (2007). Auge y caida de las grandes potencias [The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers, Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Mondadori (Original work published in 1987).

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249255.pdf on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Rommel, E. (2006). Memorias del Mariscal Rommel [The Rommel Papers, Julio Fernandez & Yañes Gimeno, trans.]. Mollet del Vallès, Spain: Caralt. (Original work published in 1953).

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/259/181/82_schoy.pdf on 03.06.2016

Vego, M. (2012). German war gaming. Naval War College Review, 65 (4), 106-147. Retrieved from: https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/900b6d3c-bcc8-4ff0-8c17-9ad22c448799/German-War-Gaming.aspx on 04.06.2016

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 1b.

Image 'Moltke Denkmal'. By Mario Zorro (Author). All rights reserved.

Image ‘Moltke Denkmal’. By Mario Zorro (Author). All rights reserved.

The first traits of the Prussian General Staff have been reviewed, along with the principles and concepts established by Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the most prominent mind behind its creation. How did his concepts and work evolved, and how much were they preserved, changed or enhanced by his successors? How did the General Staff evolved. And how did those successors kept building and enhancing the General Staff? This part will focus on the evolution of the General Staff after von Scharnhorst, the role it played in the Prussian victories of the second half of the 19th Century, the role it played during WWI, the period betweenthe wars and WWII. The relation the General Staff had with the political forces will be mentioned as well, in order to provide a much clear picture of the role it played beyond the military sphere.

The evolution of the General Staff

Following von Scharnhorst’s dead, von Gneisenau followed as chief of the QMG, which was later transformed into the General Staff, thus beings its very first head. He was an independent, bold and decided person, that was able to take initiative and even address a defeat suffered by von Blücher, as he ordered him to link up with Wellington, thus contributing to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. He even devised tactics using the national resources, a decisive encounter after feint, manoeuvring and encirclement to defeat Napoleon. Von Blücher also became part of the General Staff as main advisor, as he himself recognized the value of highly trained and skilled assistants, being already selected by von Scharnhorst, and being able to connect with the common people. Von Gneisenau further developed the General Staff, by allowing the officers of the units own General Staffs to directly report and treat with him. He also implemented mission-based command with issuing general directives allowing subordinate commanders to have initiative and act independently within those general directives, as well as auftragstaktik or mission-type tactics[1]. The General Staff, during this period, also became an independent military institution, as it was separated from the War Ministry although it was still subordinated for operational planning and command. And more importantly, he established the right of the advising officer to take part on the command and control process (Gunther, 2012; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d).

Another common myth about the Prussian army – and therefore the German army – is that it worked based on strict orders to be obeyed, stiffen hierarchy, little room for initiative, little freedom of action and officers unable to address any contingency as the plans were made very carefully and perfectly, needing only to follow them by the book. The review on von Scharnorst and the early days of the Prussian General Staff are the first argument to bust this myth. Furthermore, the principles established by him were further enhanced by his successors, being von Moltke the most remarkable one, at the point that his influence made of the Prussian Army rather flexible with officers capable of managing the unexpected, that very factor common in any battle.

Von Moltke, the Field Marshal that would play a decisive role in France’s defeat in 1871, also became chief of the General Staff (where also the General Staff received is current name), where he developed the concept of mission-based command, introducing uniformed training of the general’s officers (Klein, 2001). He also improved the General staff: it transformed it from an academic into an instrument of command, at the point the chief of General Staff became the chief of the High Command, and attending meetings concerning the General Staff and even issuing order independently. It also established three different divisions tasked with observing activities and any other matter of military interest and railroad related matters on three main geographical regions. These regions were: First, the North and Southeast areas; Sweden, Norway, Turkey, and Austria. Second, Central Europe, basically the small states of what would be Germany – the reader must bear in mind that these divisions belong to the times before the second German Unification under von Bismarck –, Italy and Switzerland. The third was in charge of Western Europe, basically France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. The USA was also under this particular division (Millotal, 1992)[2].

Von Moltke made also emphasis on mobility, speed and precision alongside the grasping of innovation product of the industrial revolution. War games over maps were also introduced to test and refine the strategies. Such innovations comprised rifled weapons and the railroads, able to exploited for mobilization, and new ways of communication. He also introduced a principle that would prove decisive even by WW2: the principle of “march separately, strike together”, which was in line with the mission-based command principle, comprising different frontal attacks making use of modern weapons and large number of troops[3]. He also stressed the importance of the small degree operations can be planned, focusing on the initial engagement, alongside independent command allowing also advice and mission oriented command (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Cau, 2011; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[4].

As the General Staff became a fully independent branch with specific and clear functions – thanks to the victories against Austria, Denmark and France – with direct access to the Kaiser (in 1883), von Schlieffen, who became the Chief of General Staff, enjoyed more independence and influence, even political. This was a troublesome aspect, as von Moltke and von Clausewitz tried to make the General Staff entirely apolitical. And the fact that the international context was very unstable did not helped in preserving this principle of neutrality, of which von Schlieffen simply adapted the previous concepts to such context, while increasing the army and introducing new equipment, technologies and command and control methods. He actually began to consider a threat on two fronts – and a war to address it – being such Russia and France, making the preparations for such contingence the main aim. He further exploited the tactical and strategic advantages of the railway network, the field artillery (with quick-firing cannons) and introducing new detailed maps. He retrieved the initial spirit of the importance of history for the General Staff, along other military-related sciences (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

For instance, and following Epkenhans (2010), The chief of General Staff reached the point of advising the Kaiser to go to war on two occasions – in 1887 and 1912 – after some crises in the Balkans involving Russia and Austria-Hungary in the first one, and the British empire in the second, in meetings where neither the chancellor nor the Secretary of foreign Affairs were present. This, however and as the same Epkenhans (2010) clarifies, was a result of the – abovementioned – social structure where the sovereign and the military were directly related, in addition to the latter sector’s strong political power and influence. It seems that after all, the General Staff could not escape to such socio-political structure, as Bismarck would protect the rights of the military and their budget against the parliament. Although relations were not always smooth and their power not that absolute. In fact, during the times of von Bismarck, there were clashes between the chancellor and the chief of General Staff about performing a victory parade in Vienna or requesting territorial demands, and even the Kaiser sided with Bismarck when the General Staff were against the plans of bombarding Paris with artillery. All in all, the foreign policies and domestic policies remained an affair of the chancellor, and eventually tactics and strategy. This particular irritated von Moltke, as he considered these two matters a prerogative of the military, considering how delicate the geo-strategic position of the German Empire was after the war with France (Epkenhans, 2010)[5].

The periods of both von Schlieffen and von Moltke II ‘The Young’ marked the transition of the army and the general Staff into a very unstable and troublesome century, while the nation was preparing itself for one of the most tragic conflicts ever, that would also bring an end to a period of time, taking with it some empires and monarchies of old. Under von Moltke II, the General Staff and the army continued with the preparations for the war against France and Russia, taking advantage of the rapidly developed new technologies and revisiting the command by using mission orders (Klein, 2001).

A troublesome century (1900-1945)

The turn of century was a very troublesome time for the German Empire in many ways: the international landscape only increased the very problematic geopolitical position of the nation, there were troubles and clashes with other Great Powers – mainly the traditional adversaries and concerns of Prussia/Germany – and, to make matters worse, the policies and the same figure of the Kaiser Wilhelm II troubled not only the foreign policies, but also the relation between the Kaiser and the military, affecting the General Staff in turn. This situation might explain why, in the end, the General Staff made use of its sort of high command position to basically displace the Kaiser as a governing figure during the war.

As Epkenhans (2010) points out, the ascent of Kaiser Wilhelm II began to trouble the relation between the Kaiser, the Chancellor and the military, as he interfered in absolutely anything, mainly in naval affairs as he favoured more the navy and tried to mold it upon the Russian army model. He deemed the navy as the weapon of choice to use the force in times where all the Great Powers were in an imperialistic race, or a more assertive foreign policy, aiming at contesting the British supremacy at the seas while protecting the German colonies overseas[6]. The problem relied on his indecisive nature that maximized the negative effects it could had on military-strategic affairs, further complicated by his desire to concentrate powers upon him, and leaving the Empire unable to cope well with crises when they took place. His intervention was that problematic that even the navy, despite its considerable power, was not ready to sail the treacherous waters and weather the gathering storms. The result was that the confidence of the military on him was simply lost, with the chancellor Hollweg sailing the ship towards WWI (Epkenhasus, 2010).

On the eve of WWI, the navy began to develop its own General Staff, and both navy and army respective staffs understood further the linkage between tactical and technological advancements, and apply such knowledge into the operational planning. During WWI, the General Staff increased its political power under von Falkenhayn first, and then with the famous duet Hindenburg-Ludendorff, at the point of dictating the policies of the state during the conflict, following the Kaiser’s inability to lead and design effective strategies[7]. Even after the war, the General Staff contributed in stabilizing the country, as the president Friedrich Ebert called the General Staff and the Prussian Ministry of War to repress the Bolsheviks, maintaining the role of the general Staff and part of the army basically intact and well into the Weimar Republic. It even survived the requirements of its disbanding made by the Allies following the armistice, only that in the units’ version instead of the bigger and central General Staff (Epkenhans, 2010; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[8].

The interwar period became a time in which, in the middle of scarcity and heavy restrictions, the General Staff manage to fulfil the spirit imprinted by von Scharnhorst, as it selected the best officers in order to rebuild the army regardless of heroics of social status. The person who kept the General Staff running – by taking advantage of the units’ general staffs – and laid the foundations of the reconstituted army was Hans von Seeckt, who put hands to work right after the end of the Great War. His three directives were the starting point for such process. The first one, was for each officer to serve and act according to the interests of the nation regardless of personal feelings or preferences. The second, was the alternation of staff and troop service, so the officers could be familiar with more operational issues. And third, the application of the lessons provided by war experience, previous analysis and study, alongside agility, mobility, clarity in orders, and ability to use – and maximize – available resources while facing heavily armed neighbours. He also kept and enhanced the ‘staff rides’, implementing war games and map exercises so to detect problems and find a solution, alongside papers on theory, weapons and other subjects. But concentration on a single task was avoided while intense training and practice were aimed at yielding uniformed operational thought. And of course, the mission-based command with freedom of action was retaken as a core principle, for von Seeckt considered that events during combat were variable and contingent factors were a rule, giving way to the commission of mistakes and ‘frictions’ (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Murray & Millet, 2005).

The main aim of von Seeckt, more specifically, was to examine the changes that emerged in the battlefields of WWII, examining the newly introduced tactic back then and exploiting the operational experiences of that conflict, with the aid of 57 commissions created for that sole purpose. The result of the findings, alongside the principles and his appointment of top-quality officers yielded the ‘combined weapons’ doctrine, which in turn, would help to establish the upcoming Panzer Divisionen and the premises of the Blitzkrieg and mobile warfare. These divisions and tactics development also followed the same spirit of the General Staff principles established by von Seeckt, as theoretical and empirical studies – based on the experiences of both British and French – were undertaken, as well as the famous ‘staff rides’ and exercises to test the concepts and theories, identify problems and work on their solution. The aim, of course, was also to modernize the army the same fashion as 1806 by introducing or adopting the new tactics and doctrines of the adversaries. As a result, the army was already having tactics and operational doctrines for the armoured divisions right before the first tanks were made available, developing such in the immediate post-war period and under the strong restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles (Murray & Millet, 2005; Guderian, 2007; Jackson, 2012).

Another of the most common myths around the Prussian/German General Staff is that, it worked very closely with the Third Reich regime, and even that it simply materialized its military aims in full agreement with the regime. There are two observations on this regard: First, and is was abovementioned, the General Staff was already working on rebuilding the army under the direction of von Seeckt and other chiefs of General Staff in the interwar period, laying the foundations of the revenant German army and its operational doctrines a good time before the Nazis took power. Secondly, the relations between the General Staff and the new regime were rather conflictive, which that resulted in the secondary role the General Staff played by the most of WWII. The advent of the Third Reich sparked hopes that the General Staff would retrieve its former importance within the army, but soon the political requirements of the regimes to the troops was going against the spirit of objectivity and neutrality, as well as the clashes between the army and the ideas of the leader principles. As a result, and despite the important contribution by the General Staff in the interwar and the Poland and France campaigns period, the General Staff was relegated to a secondary role while being at odds with the regime. Even some of its officers took part in the assassination plot of July the 20th. The re-established War Academy allowed the General Staff to undertake the officers’ education at least (Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

Furthermore, and following Guderian (2007), the General Staff and the dictator were having strong disagreements on operational issues even by 1944-1945, at the point that it simply displaced any influence this institution would have in the orders while concentrating all the decision prerogatives in his hands.

The rest is history and the outcome is already known, but it is very interesting to see how the General Staff simply shaped and structured not only an army, but also a nation, at the point that it gave the tools to wage war in the most efficient way, despite some political problems throughout its history. And even when victory was far from certain, yet being capable of shaping the history of the world. This is the history, the genealogy of the Prussian General Staff. In the next part, its essence will be thoughtfully reviewed, as it will help in understanding why it instils fears and admiration even nowadays, and how it contributed to shape a nation, an army, and the ways of doing warfare. In other words, the next section will focus on how the Prussian General Staff worked.



[1] The alternation of troop and General Staff service was introduced for officers, alongside the ‘staff rides’ as part of the General Staff officers’ training, although some issues with modernization and grasping new technologies persisted for a while. This troubled the General Staff influence on new weaponry and equipment (Klein, 2011).

[2] These division were basically observing the development and possible innovations introduced by the nations under their scrutiny, so to study the potential adversaries and prepare the own armies (Millotat, 1992).

[3] This principle would pay its worth as, during the Franco-Prussian war, the Prussian were able to understand and anticipate the plans of the adversary, at the point of forcing them to change their plans (Gunther, 2012).

[4] Other additional principles introduced were the assessment of the situation and the commander to decide the course of action.

[5] Von Moltke even suggested a preventive war against France or Russia so to address the famous ‘two-fronts’ threat, which was contested by Bismarck, who managed to persuade von Moltke about the idea (Epkenhans, 2010).

[6] Admirals von Bülow and von Tirpitz aided the Kaiser on this quest. For more information on the Kaisers’ role on this matters and on causing WWI, see: The Great War Series, Part V(a).

[7] Epkenhans (2010) even suggests that, given the lost vote of confidence, the military set course towards the armistice and the encouragement of the Kaiser to march into exile.

[8] After WWII, the General Staff was also a subject of judgement, being acquitted in the end (Millotat, 1992).



Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Chant, C. (1999). La Maquinaria de Guerra Nazi. [The Nazi War Machine, Macarena Rojo Gonzalez, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Agata (Original work published in 1996).

Epkenhans, M. (Fall 2010). Bismarck, Wilhelm II., and German Military Leadership. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 13 (1), 42-60. Retrieved from: http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/363/384 on 04.06.2016.

Gral. Guderian, H. (2007). Recuerdos de un Soldado. [Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Luis Pumarola Alaiz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Inèdita Editores S.L. (Original work published in 1952).

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/Auftragstaktik.pdf on 04.06.2016 (AY 2012-02)

Jackson, R. (2012). Panzer: Modelle aus aller Welt von 1915 bis Heute. [Ralf Burau, trans.]. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/115399/ichaptersection_singledocument/e5d57ca7-d0bb-4bcf-a3ac-9133f90c1578/en/01_01_16.pdf. on 03.06.2016

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249255.pdf on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/259/181/82_schoy.pdf on 03.06.2016

The Prussian General Staff: Meritocracy in Arms. Part 1a.

Image ‘ps61’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.

Image ‘ps61’ by Joe Robinson. Released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.

The French Countryside, 1871. The Prussian troops are marching victorious towards Paris, after defeating the French troops, and adversary that was superior in numbers. For this reason, victory was uncertain for the soldiers. But there it was! The unmistakable sight of the city and its monuments! Victory, indeed, was certain. 1914, The now German troops advance towards its target, which is the same as the 43 years before. Little they know that victory will be elusive, and many will be condemned to wage a war on a terrible stalemate. 1940, the Germans are marching once again on the same fields, with their infamous Panzers as an army of steel monster, ready to seal the doom of their adversaries. Before their guns and on the horizons, the far silhouette of the Eiffel tower can be seen in the morning mist, cutting across the sky and the morning mist, inviting. The commander of one of the tanks smile: his country is about to defeat one of its most traditional adversaries, while marching victorious.

The three aforementioned moments represent all a milestone in the history of Prussia/Germany, let alone the history of the whole world. The three conflicts that took place around those dates are an example of how a nation is capable of waging war, overcoming many odds or introducing innovations in wither assets or tactics, being able to overweight the power of its adversaries. But there was something that allowed this nation to do so, besides the bravery and skills of its soldiers. Something that allowed this nation to plan for the next fights, give a good fight or reach victory. This element by itself made the kingdom that created it a legend, becoming also into one. This element is the General Staff, devised by Prussia in the early 19 Century. A concept that even nowadays, it instils respect and admiration around the world, becoming also a model for many armies. But also a concept surrounded by many myths and misconceptions.

A birth out of innovation and defeat.

The history of the General Staff is as fascinating as the circumstances that gave way to it, but it is also a history of Prussia and the Prussian army itself, considering how close the political and the military sphere were so close in that old country. The genealogy of the General Staff can be divided into four crucial periods: it can be traced on its primeval shape back in the times of Friedrich Wilhelm I ‘The Great Elector and Frederick II ‘The Great’, which constitutes the first period. The second period comprises the advent of Von Scharnhorst and the defeat of 1806, events that give shape to the General Staff as we know it. The third period comprises the evolution and the important management by Von Moltke the Elder, Von Schlieffen, and Von Moltke the Young. The fourth period comprises WWI, the inter-wars period and WWII.

The Primeval times: The Proto-General Staff

The roots of the General staff can be traced back to those times in which, as Cau (2011) points out, the sovereign was the main leader of the army until Napoleon. Col. Klein (2001) provides a more specific and detailed picture. Austria, Prussia and Bavaria already had what could be called ‘General Staffs’, but it was Prussia the nation that maximized it. In the case of Prussia, furthermore, the first traits of a General Staff can be found when Friedrich I ‘The Great Elector’ was ruling, with the system going even when Friedrich ‘The Great’ was the king of Prussia, playing an important role during the Austrian War of Succession (Klein, 2001).

It is noteworthy to remark that the development of this primeval ‘general staff’ was taking place at the same time Prussia was developing in many ways, militarily included, with this way of development playing a role on the development of the general staff. To talk about the General Staff is to talk about Prussia and its army, as both are deeply intertwined. As Bergamino & Palitta (2015), Cau (2011), Epkenhans (2010) and Goerlitz (1985) remark, the Prussian army became a myth since the early 18th Century – thanks to the deeds of Friedrich ‘The Great’ during the Seven Years War – making Prussia a Great Power. It was the product of a time in which absolute monarchies had armies that were a core part of the state’s structure, only that in Prussia the army was the main political vector, thanks to ‘The Great Elector’[1]. He gave birth to the army and a sort of ‘general staff branch’, which was tasked with all engineering services, supervising marching routes, choosing camp sites and fortified positions, focusing also on training and tactical aspects[2]. The king was the commander in chief of the army, with the high ranks (officers) being comprised by noblemen or ‘Junkers’, required to serve in the army so to serve the king. This resulted in the proto-general staff being comprised by noblemen of both Prussian and Polish origins, when Silesia was latter annexed by Prussia.

Additionally, and following Herwig (1998), the army was forged since its first days to keep domestic order, being abroad power projection a secondary aim initially. This made the army to be comprised mostly by soldiers with conservative and country background, all swearing featly to the king and becoming a military aristocracy. The army, in turn, was preferred to be a small one, with good discipline and reliable corps. Given its composition and its direct relation with the king, it became – as it was aforementioned – a very powerful sector in politics, with its power scarcely challenged. It was also partially self-sufficient, producing most of its assets and ammunition. Such characteristics would remain until even the interwar period.

During Friedrich Wilhelm II, the successor of ‘Alte Fritz’, the high command was divided, with the primeval ‘general staff’ evolving into the ‘quartermaster-general staff (QMGS) with some degree of independence and with further tasks[3]. The QMS officers could provide advice if required. The army commanders were their own staff officers, often seeking advice from generals for sole tactical or logistical issues. The king, in turn, had his own staff of top ranking adjutant generals supervising the headquarter personnel and strategic and operational aspects, assisting also in both war and peacetime, alongside reconnoitring the terrain, transmitting orders and writing reports and gathering information for the battle[4]. Nevertheless, as the king was the chief of QMGS, he selected the best 12 officers, but some small branches developed within the QMGS, increasing overlapping and rivalries, like the office of adjuntant generals and the military cabinet. At field level, in the other hand, a set of Brigadier Majors assisted the generals with reporting and data compilation and moving from one side to another (Goerlitz, 1985; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

The Seven Years wars sparked the aforementioned changes, but also new ones of more operational nature. As the scattered theatres of operation meant operating with larger troops on a wide geographic scope, independent command with freedom of decision was necessary, so the king attached an adjuntant general to each unit commander. From 1758 onward there was only one adjuntant general with a secretary deciding the utilization of units in operations. These times mark the stagnation of the Prussian army in many aspects, as the battle was carefully devised, with synchronized firing and manoeuvring being the objectives. The battlefield, being small as the weapons had a short range, made the troops movements easier to control, yet the direct encounter was avoided, being more a fight of manoeuvers and diplomacy deciding the outcome of a war. Bureaucratization followed, having as consequence the aforementioned stagnation (Goerlitz, 1985).

But as new changes were about to come, in both political and military aspects, alongside the Industrial Revolution, this stagnation left Prussia unable to cope with the new times to come. Which in a way, became as an advantage, as it was one of the catalysis behind the establishment of the General Staff. The other spark was the intelligent mentality of many officers, with von Scharnhorst being the most remarkable one.

When defeat and a set of brilliant minds crafted excellence

The Prussian army, the model of the world back then – even for the earlier revolutionary France – was about to face one of its hardest tests and suffer one of its most remarkable defeats. They were the product of many factors that were developing since the times of Friedrich ‘The Great’, perhaps in an inevitable manner and as a consequence of the pride and myths surrounding the Prussian Army. Not only the bureaucratization pointed out by Goerlitz (1985) played its part, but also the – blind – veneration to Friedrich ‘The Great’ and his tactics, the reluctance to adopt new forms of warfare and the arrogance by a nobility unable to cope with innovations that were going against the doctrines of ‘The Great’ (Schoy, 1985).

Furthermore, the Prussian army was basically the same as that of the 7 Years War, which meant it was a small army in quantitative terms, comprised mostly by foreigners, prisoners of war and volunteers from the newly acquired territories, and being the nobility the backbone of the army. This also meant that the field commanders did not enjoyed a centralized command and their exercising of initiative was rather restricted (Gunther, 2012). And if such conditions weren’t bad enough, there were additional problems that contributed to this state: the officer corps was having cynical attitudes with little clarity or will to face France, no clear and strong direction except a desire for neutrality, and the old nobility whose reluctance to implement changes resulted in the aforementioned stagnation of the army, with the king being unable to manage the situation. Furthermore, the same international context and the Battle of Austerlitz both served as additional wake-up calls for Prussia (Goerlitz, 1985)[5].

Unsurprisingly, the Prussian were not able to stand its ground before the much modern and prepared French Army under Napoleon’s lead, resulting in the simultaneous defeats at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. These defeats, however, allowed the nation and the army to cope and accommodate with the new times that were dawning, all thanks to the mindset of many reformers that sought to modernize the army and the political system, being von Scharnhorst the most notorious, though certainly not the only one.

Right after the defeats, realization came that times were changing rapidly, prompting Scharnhorst and his group of reformers to aim at modernizing the army. Their efforts would pay its first fruits by the second half of the 19th Century. This was a fortunate timing, for it was by then Prussia waged its most crucial wars. Yet it was not the only initiative, as in 1802, Baron von Massenbach drafted a memorandum to king Frederick William III, proposing the creation of an advisory military committee on political and military matters, as well as planning for each possible war scenario in peacetime, and with the chief of QMGS having direct access to the king. He also established the values framing the general staff, which would be explained later on (Goerlitz, 1985; Klein, 2001).

The king followed the recommendations. But this new General Staff, fully replacing the QMGS, was not either capable to stand the French warfare, as it was plainly evident after the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. This only prompted von Scharnhorst to push further to his proposed reforms, very similar to those of von Massenbach, and including the scheming of a new high command to be developed by a military organization commission[6]. He also proposed the organization and education of the Prussian Army to be enhanced. Proposals that, by the way, were also drafted almost at the same time of von Massenbach’s. (Goerlitz, 1985; Klein, 2011; Schoy, n.d.).

The figure of Von Scharnhorst came to be the most critical one for modernizing and further creating and polishing – if the QMGS is recognized as the proto-General Staff it was – the Prussian General Staff and in laying the foundations of the Prussian/German Army[7]. As Schoy (n.d.) points out, his character ended in permeating the armed forces (and the General Staff), as he established the professionalization of the army and the perfecting of its educational system, thanks to his reformist spirit. This was complemented by his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution before his death, in 1813. He considered that disciplined intellect in the military career was essential for officers to be responsive to changes, thus improving all-level command leadership. He also considered theory to be based upon experience, resorting to history when there was no experience, as it could represent reality. Therefore, historical examples were to be examined to exercise judgement. Languages were also deemed as important[8].

Von Scharnhorst, born in Hannover in 1755, took the career of arms since very young, with his attendance to the Military Academy of count von Schaumburg-Lippe being important for his latter military career, whom would also influence the mindset of the then young Scharnhorst by his autodidact approach that consolidated his talents as military theorist, and his military experience in Portugal and wars with France[9]. The Academy, in fact, had Military History and Languages among its subjects, focusing on critical examination and encouraging the students to command every subject. Von Scharnhorst’s service with the Hannover Army allowed him to gain experience as military educator, writer, and operational experience during the First Coalition. In this period of time, he used to send memorandums and concept papers with suggestions regarding education and promotion of officers, highlighting the application of varied sciences, the education of military leaders from young age, and to eradicate the promotion of officers based upon connections or status, replacing it with promotion based on objective performance criteria or skills. In other words, to allow promotion regardless of social background and based upon merit (Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.)[10].

Von Scharnhorst also stressed the importance of training under near combat conditions to replace the monotony of duty and drilling, as education was deemed as the balance between theory, field empiric exercises and personal studies. Reading could help officers to be enriched by other’s experiences. For von Scharnhorst, war and the military were both simply professions and fields requiring competitive studying and training, or simply put, a field that required a considerable degree of intellectual preparation and effort – in other words, a proper education. Of course, and in coherence with his structural mind-set, he gained experience in the aforementioned First Coalition, where he had personal initiative as he organized the fleeing units thus helping the retreat of the entire corps, along with the development of improvised ditches and barricades that facilitated the repealing of heavy assaults, and even contributed in breaking the siege (Schoy, n.d.).

This experience was important for both von Scharnhorst and the General Staff in the sense, as he began to analyse and learn from the French Revolution and its leve-en-massé, assessing their impact in the battlefield. These observations, following Schoy (n.d.), were important, and it is noteworthy to point them out, for they were taking as basis for the Prussian army modernization and the implementation of the General Staff: The French were inspired by the Revolution thus having a large number of conscripts and patriotic volunteers; free-firing skirmished and dense columns with artillery support and flexible and dispersed order of sharpshooters were superior to the rigid and linear tactics; the same Revolution allowed France to mobilize all of its resources and nationals, complemented by a better military education and organization that allowed promotion and hierarchies based on qualification and merit, and having its own version of a general staff. As a conclusion, von Scharnhorst considered that modernization was necessary, replicating many of the French innovations and establishing a permanent command and control organism (the General Staff) controlling an army to be organized in divisions, eliminating also the old practice both operational and hierarchical/regarding promotions, as well as making the military service universal (Goerlitz, 1985; Schoy, n.d.)[11]. The French way of warfare was in lieu with the ideas of von Scharnhorst, and the benefits of his experiences during the First Coalition gave him the elements enough to validate them empirically or to find more elements to include within his observations and ideas.

But the ideas of von Scharnhorst were not destined to be fruitful in Hannover. The army found those reforms unnecessary, as political and social changes, close to those of the French would be necessary, forcing him to move to Prussia and serve with the Prussian Army in 1801, where he would be raised to nobility thanks to his merits and skills. There, his path was also met with some strong opposition as he also began to draft reform proposals to allow the Prussian Army to be modernized and become a match to the French Army[12]. So he decided to aim at the officers’ corps and enhance their education, especially that of the new officers, considering the strong reluctance of the ‘old school’ – even the king – and that the new officers could compensate the structural problems of the army by being open to the new changes in socio-political and military aspects[13]. ‘Old school’ that, by the way, would be a constant factor of opposition during the development and consolidation of the General Staff. His purpose would be facilitated by his appointment as a director of one of the educational institutions of the armed forces, enhancing is academic content. There and along his academic principles, he also mixed theory and practice, so to allow officers to apply their knowledge in the field as well as to force them to use their own judgment upon the situation, with mission-oriented training (Goerlitz, 1985; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.)[14].

Alongside his educational tasks, von Scharnhorst decided to create a military society (the Militärische Gesellschaft) in order to exchange ideas, avoid bias, and encourage discussion via papers. Objectivity was a core basic element of the discussions and to provide them with legitimacy. The establishment of this society also played a positive role for the Prussian Army and its General Staff, as it was another bridge that helped in materializing von Scharnhorst and the other reformers’ ideas. Von dem Knesebech and von Clausewitz were one of the reformers that supported von Scharnhorst on this particular (Goerlitz, 1985; Schoy, n.d.)[15].

Perhaps one of the common clichés is the image of the Prussians unable to make mistake or even to accept and learn from them, with failure being strongly condemned, thus the military would not be different. A cliché that could apply for our times. Nothing far from the truth, in fact, and as it will be make evident throughout these reviews. According to Schoy (n.d.), von Scharnhorst stressed the importance of having a good will to learn and avoid pressure, with examination of mistakes being reviewed anonymously so to create a positive climate. And basically to provide a good feedback and debriefing. This would be later on reflected on the way the General Staff would work in the future.

As a result of the overall experiences by von Scharnhorst and Prussia during the wars, the General Staff, or a transitional version of it between the QMGS and the known General Staff, was established, with many of the ideas of von Massenbach and von Scharnhorst put in practice. The latter was in charge of one of the three brigades comprising it and responsible for all matters in the western territories of Prussia, yet inner differences and the lack of a single chief yielded the aforementioned result in 1806, although such event was enough to prove that reforms were a must[16]. As a result, von Scharnhorst was tasked with heading a reorganization commission, where all of his society members and students were recruited, thus implementing the reforms and reorganizing the army into armies, corps and divisions – with the division having small units of its own – and all aiming at assisting commanders into directing a numerous force operating in various and separated areas. The reforms also included universal conscription, amendment of doctrine and equipment, and renewing the officer corps. A Ministry of War was also created, alongside the polishing of the units own general staffs so to maximize results at tactical level, and the establishment of new educational institutions. The purpose of this one was simply for training and selecting the best and incorporate them into the General Staff (Gunther, 2012; Goerlitz, n.d.; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.)[17]. Needless to say, the ideas of von Scharnhorst and his groups of reformers were able to fruit.

In the next part, the evolution of the General Staff until 1945 is going to be reviewed, so to identify the principles, inputs and concepts that polished it and that contributed to make of the General Staff a very efficient and respected military institutions. Also, it will be possible to see how the principles of von Scharnhorst were preserved and served as a basis for this evolution.



[1] The army was of great importance, that even the civil administration and educational institutions had military purposes, salve the academy of sciences, following Goerlitz (1985).

[2] To do so, he followed the model established by Sweden, according to Goerlitz (1985).

[3] Such tasks comprised: Army camping, assignation of units, scouting positions, service support, reconnoitre enemy position. In battle, it was tasked with aiding the general, lead columns or detachments, engineering duties when no engineers available, directing fortification works, intelligence and espionage, and keeping the war diary. See: Klein, 2001, p.134.

[4] This corps od adjutant would eventually rise into the military cabinet, which also contributed in pushing forward the reforms post-1806 (Goerlitz, 1985).

[5] The level of arrogance was such that, following Goerlitz (1985), the ‘old school’ noble officers rejected the proposed reforms and the idea of making the army ranks more accessible, and even stated that the system of Friedrich ‘The Great’ needed to be re-examined as the army was able to match Napoleon’s army!

[6] In fact, and according to Schoy (n.d.), von Massenbach was part of the society established by von Scharnhorst.

[7] For instance, it could be attributed to von Scharnhorst the way the General Staff was structured and shaped, thus being possible to call him “the Father of the General Staff”, as Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.) put it, taking inspiration from the ideas of France and further enhancing them (Goerlitz, 1985).

[8] In the next part it will be pointed out how the General Staff was based – and worked – upon such thoughts.

[9] Von Schaumburg-Lippe also considered defensive war to be recommendable with strong deterrence as the best way to avoid it, being this achievable by mobilizing all the national resources and perfecting military science. Military leadership of high quality and effectiveness were both a key for victory (Schoy, n.d.)

[10] During this period, he also wrote reviews as a way to encourage an ‘enlightened military’ and in full pedagogic spirit, using historical examples, and inform about the other European armies of the times (Schoy, n.d.).

[11] This also meant to make the General Staff (or QMGS) out of its subordinated position into a central actor within the military, having well educated officers assisting field commanders in chief with qualified advice while working on strategic plans in consultation with the higher command. Such tasks were to be done also in peacetime by preparing possible plans of operation, alongside ‘staff rides’ to reconnoitre the terrain (Goerlitz, 1985; Schoy, n.d.).

[12] Oppositions based on similar reasons as those in Hannover, along with the veneration for the tactics of Friedrich ‘The Great’ (Schoy, n.d.).

[13] Interestingly, von Scharnhorst also cultivated a critical view against military dogmas and ideologies by examining their validity, encouraging instead discussion and independent thinking. Cfr: Schoy, n.d., p.14.

[14] This method was also applied in the classroom, where students where encouraged to find their own solution (Schoy, n.d.).

[15] The military society was also important in the sense that it ‘formed’ many of the officers that would be influential military theorists and chiefs of the General Staff, such as von Gneisenau, von Grolmann, among others. Cfr: Schoy, n.d., p. 17.

[16] Even in wartime, von Scharnhorst ideas were rejected, as this was the fate of his suggestion of using concentrated forces to face the advance of the French Armies (Goerlitz, 1985).

[17] The changes were also of socio-political nature. Not only the bourgeois was able to access to the officers ranks upon educational background, but as it was aforementioned, the military service became universal, alongside the abolition of hereditary serfdom and corporal punishments, and the creation of local city governments of representative nature. The aim was no other than to bring closer the army with the people, and to instil the same national spirit the French had (Gunther, 2012; Goerlitz, 1985).



Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Epkenhans, M. (Fall 2010). Bismarck, Wilhelm II., and German Military Leadership. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 13 (1), 42-60. Retrieved from: http://jmss.org/jmss/index.php/jmss/article/view/363/384 on 04.06.2016.

Goerlitz, W. (1985). History of the German General Staff, 1657-1945. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Maj. Gunther, M. J. (2012). Auftragstaktik: The Basis for Modern Military Command? Fort Leaveworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies. Retrieved from: http://indianstrategicknowledgeonline.com/web/Auftragstaktik.pdf on 04.06.2016 (AY 2012-02)

Herwig, H. H. (Spring 1998). The Prussian Model and Military Planning Today. Joint Force Quarterly, 18, 67-75. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jfq/jfq-18.pdf on 03.06.2016

Col. Klein, F. (2001). The Myth of the Prusso-German General Staff. Baltic Defence Review, 2001 (5), 133-144. Retrieved from: http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/115399/ichaptersection_singledocument/e5d57ca7-d0bb-4bcf-a3ac-9133f90c1578/en/01_01_16.pdf. on 03.06.2016

Oberst. Millotat, C. O. E. (1992). Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249255.pdf on 03.06.2016 (AD-A249 255)

Oberst. Schoy, M. (n.d). General Gerhard von Scharnhorst: Mentor of Clausewitz and Father of the Prussian-German General Staff. Retrieved from: http://www.cfc.forces.gc.ca/259/181/82_schoy.pdf on 03.06.2016

Midway: When the Airplane Sank an Empire (Part I)

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.

Image ‘Battle ship Mikasa’ by Taiyo FUJI. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.


The date is the 4th of June, 1942. Two of the major aircraft carrier-based fleets of the world are sailing at full speed towards a battle that would seal the fate of their respective nations. Beneath the Summer sun, the crews of the airplanes are boarding their aircraft, ready to write history with their wings and bombs while facing each an enemy decided to win or perish. From the American side, it was a very risky gamble considering how badly damaged the US Pacific fleet was, and the risks and implications defeat would bring. For the Japanese, there was a lot to win, unsuspecting also that there was also too much too lose despite the illusion of absolute triumph the earlier victories made them to believe. In the end, it was the flag of the Empire of the Rising Sun the one that went beneath the waves as a result of a small group of eagles that destroyed the dreams of a perennial and invincible empire.

The Battle of Midway is among the most important (naval) battles in history, whose consequences determined the outcome of a war, evidencing also – like every battle in history – that a small factor like ammunition placed in the wrong place at the wrong moment, a broken secret code for communications, or an unseen squadron of bombers can change history, bringing empires to an end, while opening the way for other nations to rise. This battle is also the example of how in a single moment, the negative strategic situation of one side could change in an instant.

The Battle of Midway is also one of those battles that confirmed the changing trends in naval warfare, tactics and strategy, making of the aircraft carrier and its airplane, the main weapons for the conflicts and times to come, at the point of making such the most important asset to counter a crisis. It also confirmed the declining role of the battleships, which were the kings of the seas for nearly fifty years. This battle was not only an historical milestone, but also a milestone for naval warfare.

Setting the course towards Midway: Strategic background I

There are occasions in which something apparently insignificant and valueless, being located in the middle of nowhere, acquires a very important strategic value regardless of the abovementioned factors. Midway is comprised by two atoll-island that harboured a naval and an air base, located northwest of Hawaii, being an American advanced post guarding the routes eastward toward the Hawaiian island and the continental United States, and capable of supporting American war efforts for any possible conflict in the Pacific with its air assets (as war with Japan was assessed feasible by 1916). It was also important for it was a relay station for a communications submarine cable between Honolulu and Luzon (the Philippines), which would play an important role in the battle to come. It was also the main of defence for the US navy base of Pearl Harbour[1]. Midway was basically the strategic gateway towards the Eastern Pacific and the shield protecting both the Hawaii islands and the continental USA.

For the Japan, Midway was a strategic point whose controlling would allow the Imperial Navy to reach the abovementioned islands and the main US territory, considering its pivotal geographical location. It was a location that, if attacked (and seized), it could provide a strategic shield to its operations in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific, as well as to be an advanced base to project its naval power and offensives further east while neutralizing US naval efforts. In addition, Japan was interested in Midway so to build an intelligence outpost, thus having plans for invasion even back in 1938[2].

The Japanese and American simultaneous expansions in the Pacific during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made Midway’s strategic importance to increase: It became an invaluable strategic point for the US, and when WWII began, so its interest for the Japanese Imperial Navy. This gradual strategic importance of Midway can only be understood by the strategic background around Midway, which is no other than the aforementioned expansions and strategic interests both the US and Japan were having in Asia, the West Pacific and, ultimately, Midway. This would allow us to understand the reasons of the Battle of Midway and why in particular it took place there.

The Empire of the Rising Sun

Japan’s rising as a major world power began during the 1867-1868 Meiji Restoration, with the Commodore Perry’s fleet entrance into Tokyo Bay and the bombardment of Kagoshima and Shimonoseki by the Royal Navy. Both events had a strong influence over the Japanese Emperor, who decided to make Japan a Great Power and to be equal with the Western powers, never to be dominated by it: basically to make of Japan an empire[3]. As a result, a strong navy and army evolved at the same time the nation was modernizing, which transformed Japan into the only Great Power in Asia, defeating China (which became a main target on economic premises) in 1894-1985 and Russia in 1904-1905, thanks to the modern weaponry and battleships used by the Japanese. Although after the conflict with China Japan was temporarily forced to give back Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, until the war with Russia[4]. Taiwan and Korea came under immediate Japanese control, with Manchuria being a sort of economic protectorate, being later on invaded in 1931, where the puppet state of Manchukuo was established in order to facilitate Japanese control over the area (Cau, 2011; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Ralby, 2013; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

Japan’s participation in WWI proved to be a disappointment for the small nation, despite Japan’s seizure of German concessions in China and its Pacific colonies, and the economic benefits in ships and ammunition exports to the Allies. Other territories, including some in Siberia during the Russian Revolution, had to be returned following US and European pressures and their desire to maintain the “Open Door” policy[5]. Consequently, Japan began to adopt a Japanese hegemony approach, which was anti-European and against US ‘Open Door’ policies in essence, and with the Japanese military leading such policies. At the same time, the military emerged as a strong political group within the country, having clashes with the noblemen and some technocrats[6]. The latter held some influence in the 20’s and agreed to sign naval treaties – like the famous Washington Treaty of 1922 – allowing Japan to limit its naval build-up and being in inferiority by a ratio of 15:15:10 in contrast with the US and the Great Britain, to freeze its interests in China, and to fortify all of its Pacific naval bases (Gibelli, 1972; Dahms, 1974; Murray & Millet, 2005)[7].

But the military began to strengthen its political and social influence in the 30’s. The army was basically administrating both Manchuria and Korea, and as the introduction of new assets – the airplanes, mainly – brought closer the industrial complex (the famous zaibatsu) with the military. In the end, the army’s political power became so strong that it decided the conformation of the government, influencing o limiting also the power of the Emperor, making him to approve the army and navy’s war plans against Russia, China, and the European Colonies in Southeast Asia. The Japanese civil society, in turn, strongly supported the military as it perceived it the safeguard of Japan’s order, while the army was revisiting the previous naval treaties, clashing with the US and the British Empire[8] (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

It might have been that the Japanese expansionistic policies had as origin the decision of the Emperor after the Commodore Perry’s fleet at Tokyo Bay and the British gunships, but there were real economic needs underlying them: Japan considered the military and naval power on equal status to the economic power[9]. For instance, Japan’s industrialization needed the support of raw materials, of which Japan lacked and was forced to import, and it did not have important colonies with strategic resources[10]. Manchuria, Korea and Taiwan were not enough to sustain the country’s industrialization efforts. Then, the Great Depression hit, alongside strong economic barriers limiting its access to the markets of the West colonies markets in Asia, the strong hostility the Great Britain, Russia and the US had towards Japan and its economic activities in both China and Manchuria, and the collapse of the silk market in 1930. As a result, Japan saw the economic exploitation of Chinas as the only solution. This sparked strong opposition from the US, as the US felt China a close state beyond mere economic reasons, which were little in fact. Japan became into an authoritarian state as a result of all these factors combined (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; and Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[11].

Russia, in turn, was having strong political interests in China. For instance, Russia was among the main supporters of Chiang Kai-shek, which alarmed Japan given the prospect of stronger military ties between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Kwantung army further deepen the control Japan already had over Manchuria, serving as a platform to advance towards China and as a way to disrupt Russian aid to either side of the Chinese Civil War. As insurgencies began to emerge in the West colonies of Indochina and the Dutch East Indies, Japan deemed them as beneficial in order to erode European influence over Asia (Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

But it was Manchuria and China the most immediate objectives of Japan, mainly because of the potential benefits both would alleviate Japan’s economic woes. In Manchuria, a series of staged attacks gave the Japanese army a reason to fully seize Manchuria in 1932, establish a puppet-state, and ward-off any European influence by occupying key locations in Mukden. Later on, Japan began to attack Chinese northern outposts in 1933, which met little resistance from Russia and the West. Shanghai was attacked and then came under occupation, with Japan withdrawing from the Society of Nations and denouncing the naval pacts signed in the 20’s[12] (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969).

The actions in China had some strong consequences in Japan. The government cabinet was deposed by the military during the events in China. But even China was dividing the military over what to do there and their role. Even if the military agreed with actions in China, the Kwantung Army was having the final say, being the actor which set the path towards the war against the US, and ultimately the Battle of Midway. Japanese late alignment with the Axis was sparked by the situation in China, as suspicions about a Russian/communist involvement in China emerged, making Japan to sign the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany[13] (Murray & Millet, 2005).

As a result of the abovementioned events, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 sparked, contributing to bring closer US and Japan armed clash. Further Sino-Japanese clashes at northern China, made Japan to send five more divisions into China with the mission of deciding what Japan called ‘The Northern China Incident’. Initially, the Japanese army managed to occupy 5 northern Chinese provinces while facing a Chinese army that albeit more numerous than that from Japan, it was underequipped. But the geographical dispersion ended playing in favour of the Chinese, something the Japanese army, despite its better quality and equipment, and the famous samurai-based ‘Bushido’, was not able to handle given its comparatively smaller size. Direct negotiations with the Nationalists, puppet-states at northern China, and Chinese collaborators all allowed Japan to hold its grip over northern China and advance further south, reaching Shanghai and Nanking. It was during the conquest of Nanking that the Japanese army attacked also Western citizens and even American and British gunboats – the USS Panay and the HMS Ladybird – suffered air attacks (Murray & Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[14].

Japan expected the conflict in China to be briefly decided through agreements with Chiang Kai-shek and his troops, but he called in for further resistance against Japanese occupation while ‘exchanging time for terrain’. The conflict was simply bound to be a long-time one, affecting Japan’s economic stability while the government radicalized further: as a result, and the need of the industry to support the war efforts, Japan depended more and more of especial raw materials available abroad. Furthermore, Japanese victories in China resulted in further expansionistic policies, with the armies advancing far south, seizing the isle of Hainan thus blocking China from sea and having a strategic platform from where to threaten the Philippines and the French colonies at Indochina. Such advance was deemed necessary by the military in order to seize more resources and to block Chinese supply lines at Indochina. At the same time, Japan decided to become the leader of a Japanese-made Asian order by overthrowing the Europeans and any Western and communist influences (Kennedy, 2007; Murray and Millet, 2005; Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969)[15].

But the longer the war at China, the willing were many Western nations, being the US the main one, to provide China with aid and to consider the imposition of economic sanctions and even to intervene further, despite US strong policy of neutrality. Following, the 1911 Trade of Commerce and Navigation was abrogated by the US, restricting Japan’s access to US financial institutions. And once Japan established relations with the Axis, the embargo was tightened. The UK supported US measures against Japan, while Germany and the USSR established closer relations in 1939, complicating Japan’s strategic position at the point that the USSR had military clashes with Japan at the Soviet-Manchurian border.

Japan’s strategic position was also complicated by the war at China itself, as a guerrilla war – or what would be denominated currently as “asymmetric conflict” – ensued, which targeted Japanese lines of supply, emerged. As Japan was controlling only the coastal and northern areas of China, the bulk of the Chinese population was free from Japanese rule, let alone the fact that despite the heavy loses, the Chinese army was able to give a fight while fatiguing the Japanese (Dahms, 1974; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[16]. The war simply resulted in a deadlock.

Japan re-established relations with Germany and other the Axis powers in 1940 with the Tripartite Pact, which established that Germany would provide Japan with military aid, only served to antagonize further Japan and the US. This pact, from the Japanese point of view, was meant to avert any military aid the US or the USSR would provide to China or the Southeast Asian European colonies. Germany’s advance through Western Europe only made the US more resolute in aiding China and the European colonies and moving the bulk of the US Navy to Pearl Harbour, revisiting even the neutrality policies. Then, a partial embargo against Japan restricted its access to scrap metal, steel, oil and other strategic resources, posing a serious dilemma for the Japanese on the courses of action to take (Gibelli, 1972; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Then, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Both events neutralized the soviet threat against the main islands and Manchuria. As a result, Japan was able to make use of its most important asset while concentrating in the South: The Japanese Imperial Navy and its aviation branch. The navy would help Japan in addressing the issues of resources and food, as the reserves were about to run empty. But alongside economic needs, there was also the aim of hampering US military aid to China so to prevent it to becoming a major risk. In doing so, Japan really never calculated that the US would go at war against Japan, as Germany was dominating most of Europe and threatening the British Empire, close to defeat the Soviets. Moreover, Japan considered the US a “weak and consumerist” nation unable to go to war (Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005).

When Japan began to implement a 1936 “keep the north, march south” strategy, it began to march towards French Indochina, which resulted in US freezing Japanese financial assets and to further strengthen the embargo[17]. 1941 was the year in which the mood for a Japanese-American war was at its highest, with Japan’s army and navy both doing detailed preparations for war. Japan was trapped between facing economic strangling or face the US; the choice became obvious. The navy, with its 2000 combat places, 10 battleships and 10 aircraft carriers, was ready to “go south”, but an attack against Pearl Harbour was required in order to neutralize US naval power and any US intervention once Japan invaded the Philippines[18]. Japan once again estimated that victory against the US would be achieved in a short period of time, with a strong and decisive strike (Dahms, 1974; Gibelli, 1972; Kennedy, 2007; Murray & Millet, 2005)[19]. Such assumption would mark the grave of the Japanese Empire, and doom the bulk of its aircraft carrier fleet to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

In the next part, a review on the Japanese actions prior Pearl Harbour will be reviewed, as well as the strategic effects such movements and the attack had, as they were the initial stage towards the Battle of Midway. On the same way, the strategic background of the US will also be reviewed, so to understand why it held interests in Asia and the Pacific, why it was considering those regions as vital, and what was the role Midway was playing in such events.



Bergamino, G. &., Palitta, G. (2015). El Gran Libro de la Guerra. [L’arte della guerra, Herminia Bevia, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2015).

Cau, P. (2011). Batallas del Mundo. [Battaglie, Maria Pilar Queralt, trans.]. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Tikal (Original work published in 2006).

Col. Ellis, D. R. (2002). The History and Strategic Importance of the Midway Island. (20020806 399). Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: US Army War College. Retrieved from:   http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA404725 on 09.08.2016

Dahms, H. G. (1974). La Segunda Guerra Mundial. [Das Zweiten Weltkrieg, Victor Scholz, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Bruguera (Original work published in 1963).

Gibelli, N. J. (1972). La expansión japonesa. In La Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.2. pp. 121–140). Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editorial Codex.

Kennedy, P. (2007). Auge y Caida de las Grandes Potencias. [The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, J. Ferrer Aleu, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial deBolsillo (Original work published in 1987).

MacDonald, J. (1993). Grandes Batallas de la II Guerra Mundial (pp. 64 – 71). [Great Battles of World War II, Luis Ogg, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Ediciones Folio (Original work published in 1993).

Murray, W. & Millet, A. R. (2005). La guerra que había que ganar [A War to be Won, Critica S.L, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Critica. (Original work published in 1998).

Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: http://www.navy.com/battle-of-midway.html on 11.08.2016

Ralby, A. (2013). Atlas of Military History: from Antiquity to the Present Day. Bath, UK: Parragon Books.

Rothberg, A., Fredericks, P. G., & O’Keefe, M. (1969). Los primeros cañonazos. In Historia de la Segunda Guerra Mundial (Vol.I, pp. 39–79). [Eyewitness History of World War II, Editorial Marin, trans.]. Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Marin. (Original work published in 1969).



[1] See: Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Ellis, 2002, pp. 5-9

[2] See: Ellis, 2002, pp.9 – 11. Macdonald, 1993, p.64. And: Navy Recruiting Command. (n.d.). Battle of Midway. US Navy. Retrieved from: http://www.navy.com/battle-of-midway.html on 11.08.2016

[3] Such policies implied, among other things, the establishment of a mandatory military service of 3 years for every male between 17-40 years old, which made the army accessible for every Japanese, receiving training from French and German instructors. This resulted in one of the most powerful infantry in the world then. See: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.205. On the other hand, Japan’s expansionism was nothing but the manifestation of the predominant ideas of imperialism that swept across Europe during those days, with Japan simply following suit. See: Dahms, 1974, pp.10-11.

[4] Japan emulated the German Empire in the process, as well as the British empire for its fleet build-up. In addition, the Japanese navy was crucial for both wars, with the Battle of Tsushima being its most famous feat. See: Cau, 2001, pp, 138-139. Gibelli, 1972-2, p. 121. And: Kennedy, 2007, p. 334.

[5] As Japan took over the former colonies in the Pacific, the US began to feel worried as they posed a threat to Hawaii and other North American Southeast Asian and Pacific territories, deploying naval assets. See: Gibelli, 1972-2, p.131.

[6] Bergamino & Palitta (2015) remark that the army’s importance was due to the fact the War minister reported only to the Emperor, resulting in an army with strong political influence. See: p.205.

[7] Despite the treaty, it seems Japan was building ships that were above the frameworks established by this very same treaty. See: Kennedy, 2007, p.476.

[8] Noteworthy to point out that Japan was a very unstable country, and for this reason the army enjoyed such perception and support.

[9] See: Kennedy, 2007, p.334.

[10] There were also pressing issues of demographic grow

[11] Only the 1% of US foreign investments made to China, as well as the 4% of exports, while US economic relations with Japan were far greater than with China. See: Murray & Millet, 2005, p.226.

[12] The inability of the Society of the Nations and other Great Powers in stopping Japan’s advances in China contributed in giving the military more power, at the point that they became the dominant sector until 1944. See: Rothberg, Fredericks & O’Keefe, 1969, pp.39-47.

[13] This pact established the German and Italian hegemony in Europe, and Japanese hegemony in Asia, implying that all the signatories would assist each other mutually in case another power would attack any. This particular statement explains US involvement against the three powers. See: Cau, 2011, pp. 164-165.

[14] Although the Japanese gave compensations to the US and apologized for the incident.

[15] The tool to organize Japanese hegemony over Asia was the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

[16] However, the Japanese were exerting an almost total blockade against China and the Nationalist forces.

[17] It took advantage of the chaos that followed the falling of France and the Netherlands in 1940, as well as the British Empire concentration in defending its metropolitan territories. Also, the Vichy Regime authorized Japan to occupy Indochina.

[18] The reader must bear in mind that the Philippines was still under US administration.

[19] Some Japanese high officials, including Admiral Yamamoto, held some doubt about this evaluation.

The Battle of Kadesh (Year -1274) – The Empires of the Deserts Collide. Part II

Image 'Hunting from a Chariot, Tomb of Userhat' by Jorge Elias. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License.

Image ‘Hunting from a Chariot, Tomb of Userhat‘ by Jorge Elias. Released under Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) License. Note: Although the selected image is depicting a hunting scene where a chariot is being used, it provides an aproximate picture of how Egyptian chariots were and their use in battle.



The Armies

The armies of the contenders tend to differ either in tactics, equipment, doctrine and the type of forces they specialize in. Rather than being the result of the so-called identity of any given nation or civilization, the armies are the result of combat experience and the type of adversaries and general conditions surrounding a certain nation. Even geography might shape their armies. Furthermore, the armies are the product of the strategic and historical background.

In addition, even if two armies have similar assets, they will present minor yet relevant differences, like the operational doctrines, which advantages are being preferred and the focusing on speed, firepower or in some case, armour. All of this depending on their intended utilization in the battlefield. A battle cannot be fully analysed if the armies and their background is not studied before.

The Weapon: The War Chariot

Kadesh is a very good example of this. In fact, and following Ralby (2013), both Egypt and Hittites were military powers with a common preference for war chariots. But despite having the same generic assets, there were crucial preferences that shaped their chariot tactics, and even the structure of their armies on different ways. This factor would have a role on how the battle developed. The chariot itself was a very valuable asset, explaining why both sides preferred it[I]. As Bergamino and Palitta (2015) explains, the chariots provided crucial mobility in the battlefield, and even served as firepower maximizing platforms, as they carried archers from which could shoot arrows from a highly mobile and manoeuvrable platform. Furthermore, the chariot provided the archers with speed as the chariot was in principle a small yet very light unit – enjoying as a result agility – thus allowing strikes from any direction, especially against the infantry[II].

In detail, the Egyptians preferred lighter chariots with a crew of two – driver and an archer – tasked with executing deep and fast attacks and then changing direction, avoiding head-on confrontations especially with the Hittite chariots, while reinforcing and defending the infantry. It also allowed the infantry to attack when the enemy was close, enabling any Egyptian commander to gain control over the battlefield, and even to change the tactical situation. Its lightweight was due to the materials it was made from: a wooden frame with some leather and steel reinforcements. The chariot troops were highly trained and of noble origins, organized in squadrons of 25 units, with each charioteer paying for the chariot and the weapons (Carney, 2005; Cau, 2011; Egipto en el Imperio Nuevo, 1996; Ralby, 2013; Steedman, 1996; Wanner, 2005).

The Egyptian Army

The bulk of the Egyptian army was, however, comprised of infantry units with permanent volunteers and conscripts armed with long spears, khepesh swords weld by skilled infantrymen, and a leather or bronze armour and helmets with a shield of the same materials. It was organized in regiments of 200 soldiers comprised mostly of poor people hoping to have some social advancement and gain prestige. There were some archers on foot, but it seems that the tendency was to use them on the chariots rather than as infantry (Carney, 2005; Cau, 2011; Egipto en el Imperio Nuevo, 1996; Ralby, 2013; Steedman, 1996; Wanner, 2005).

The Egyptian army reached such level of complexity that required the introduction of new elements. Elements such as highly specialized assets and command and control. The local-based and untrained infantry was no longer part of the army’s bulk, for the new weapons indeed required high and special training. This meant that the Egyptian army during the New Kingdom was a very organized, skilled, professional and permanent army. Mercenaries where also used (Carney, 2005; Steedman, 1996).

The Hittites

The Hittites preferred heavy armoured and heavily armed chariots – a driver, a shield-man, and a spearman – tasked with performing blitz attacks against the enemy infantry so to break their lines, being also suitable to head-on confrontations. After this, the infantry would eliminate the remaining enemy soldiers. The chariot as a result, was heavier than those of Egypt, built upon a heavier wooden frame with leather mount. The Hittite infantry, in turn, was very similar to that of Egypt, only it wore tunics or went to battle bare-chested, being a helmet the only protection. Very skilled soldiers, they used tactics of compact formations with special attention on scouts and employment of deception tactics, with the bulk of the formation moving fast to find a place suitable for the chariots. Also, the Hittites were armed with composite bows and axes, as well as spears and swords, being very skilled on their use. The Hittites, by the time of the Battle of Kadesh, were having an army of 17000 thousand strong and between 2500 and 3000 chariots (Bergamino and Palitta, 2015; Carney, 2005; Cau, 2011; Wanner, 2005; Wilkinson, 1997).

Forging an army: from occupation to Empire

The Egyptians deserve special attention given the very particular events that shaped their army and transformed Egypt into Great Power: when the Hyksos were expelled in -1580 and the rise of the New Kingdom (the Dynasties 18th and 19th). The expulsion of the Hyksos was in fact a rather lengthy process taking two centuries. Thebes was an independent yet a tributary of the Hyksos rule which was concentrated in lower Egypt. In the meantime, Thebes learned how to make use of the bow and the chariot the same way the Hyksos used both, until a revolt over religious reasons gave Thebes the opportunity to make use of the newly acquired weaponry and expel the Hyksos out of Egypt. Under the command of pharaoh Ahmose I (-1550 – -1525) the Hyksos were pressed further while introducing the innovative reward system in the Egyptian Army (Carney, 2005; Egipto: Los Imperios Antiguo y Medio, 1989).

As a result, Egypt was among the first civilizations that created large armies with a single commander and having fortified defences, which reached further sophistications after the Hyksos expelling, as it included the utilization of messages and signals, logistics, supplies system and espionage (or the first intelligence services in the world)[III].

It was during this period where the expansion of Egypt began, thanks to the military reforms that included the introduction of the same weapons the Hyksos used to conquer the nation 200 years ago. In particular, the chariot became the cornerstone of Egypt military during the New Kingdom. As the Hyksos were pursued further north, the Egyptians met a territory far more suitable for chariot use, bestowing Egypt more strategic projection and a much more mobile and fast army, which went beyond the traditional borders of Egypt. With the help of the chariot and the composite bow in combination, Egypt was able to have a very powerful and large army (Egipto en el Imperio Nuevo, 1996; Carney, 2005).

Other innovations introduced by the Hyksos and later used by Egypt were the composite bow and the axe. The bow was the other important military asset Egypt was able to use for its campaigns, as it was lighter, smaller and with a firepower enough to throw an arrow to distances up to 200 yards (Carney, 2005).

These assets – chariot and bow – also allowed Egypt to expand its borders and control large portions of territory – including the Syria-Lebanon and current Israel areas under Thutmose I (-1504 – -1492). It also allowed Egypt to influence the known-world back then. An example is the campaigns waged by Thutmose III (-1479 – – 1425), where the chariot was a central asset, and even they were made to pass through a not entirely suitable terrain in some passes to Meggido, so to take the city by surprise (Carney, 2005; Egipto en el Imperio Nuevo, 1996; Egipto: Los Imperios Antiguo y Medio, 1989).

The 19th Dynasty also saw the value of the chariot. Even during Ramses II (-1279 – -1213) the chariot was an important asset, with Ramses II using it as a demonstration of Egypt’s power, while implementing further reforms. By the times of the Battle of Kadesh, the Egyptian army was quite large. According to Breasted (1903) and Cau (2011), it was estimated to be between 20 or 30000-strong with 4 divisions which included some heavy infantry. In fact, Ramses II marched with 4 divisions – the Amon, Ra, Ptah, and Sutekh – of 5000 men each to Kadesh.

Those 4 divisions were in turn organized in 20 companies of 200 or 250 men with 10 platoons of 50 men each. It was also comprised of around 2000 chariots, and the regular troops, comprised by veterans, recruits, and the reserve[IV]. Egypt was also among the first Empires to have used foreign mercenaries, using them as a complement to their armies, being allowed to have their own weapons and customs. In fact, during the battle of Kadesh, some mercenaries from Syria – the Sardans – took part under Egyptian command (Ralby, 2013; Steedman, 1996).


The Battle

Given the nature of most of the weaponry used by both armies during the battle, it is inevitable to draw a comparison with the battle of Kursk. Both were the most massive encounter of chariots and armoured assets in Ancient and modern times, respectively. Moreover, Kadesh, the same way as Kursk, witnessed mostly the exclusive intervention of mobile assets – the chariots – with the infantry playing a mere secondary role[V].

So, why the battle took place in Kadesh? Going back to the strategic background review, it is clear that Kadesh was enjoying a privileged strategic position posing a threat to Egyptian northern territories and vassals, and to Hittites southern territories and vassals. This explain why many encounters between the Egyptians and the Hittites took place around Kadesh, and their efforts to take or remove it from the other side’s control. In detail, Kadesh itself was a strategic location within a strategic area where both Egyptian Empire and Hittite Empire were having the same interests[VI]. Kadesh, in consequence, was the ultimate point of collision, as rivalry between the Egyptian empire and the Hittite empire escalated.

Tactical location

According to Breasted (1903), Kadesh had a very important strategic location, as it was at the entrance of the Buka’a Heights, located also on the Buka’a road from current Lebanon to the sea, meaning this it was placed on a crossroads between the South, the North, the East and the West. A good pint to use as a base of advance or as a point to halt the adversary’s advance.

The fact that the River Orontes was the most important feature of the terrain played a significant role in the late course of events during the battle, being a tactical asset for both armies at given moments during the battle. In fact, it divided the battlefield in two areas, and up river, the Egyptian army was forced to ford the river, delaying the movement of some of the Egyptian divisions [VII]. A second geographical characteristic of the terrain made possible the massive usage of war chariots by both contenders, for the Orontes Valley was a plain. Also, a forest located West of the river, between Shabtuna and Kadesh, helped the Hittites to disguise their movements (Breasted, 1903).

The encounter

Being the armies rallied, the orders issued and with the objectives being set, the soldiers marched towards the encounter. It would have been interesting to know what was going on in Ramses II’s mind, when he was leading his army, mounted on his chariot, and marching under the sun of the desert and beneath the stars, as if they were indicating the direction towards a place where history was about to be written.

Noteworthy to mention that the two armies had the following strength: a 20000-strong infantry (with the aforementioned 4 divisions of 5000 troops each) and 2000 chariots from the Egyptian side; and a 17000-strong infantry (which took no relevant part in the battle) and between 2500-3000 chariots from the Hittites side[VIII].

Ramses II departed from Egypt with an army of 4 divisions, marching alongside the Mediterranean coast and being supported by a city used as a base, located in Lebanon. Those divisions were the Amon – under his direct command and the division that had the fastest advance –, Ra, Ptah, and Sutekh, all marching behind the Amon, alongside the Sardan mercenary troops[IX]. The night before the battle Ramses II established a camp on a height south of Kadesh, being the next morning crucial for the battle. Ramses II resumed his advance while his scouting parties were unable to locate the Hittites, which made him to assume the Hittites were far north. This assumption made the two Hittite spies – disguised as deserters – to easily convince Ramses that indeed Muwatalli was far north in Aleppo when he encountered them, being in reality very close to Kadesh (Breasted, 1903; Cau, 2011; Ralby, 2013; Wanner, 2005)[X].

Ramses II then, increased the speed of his advance towards Kadesh, with the almost catastrophic consequence of separating he and the Amon division from the bulk of the Egyptian forces, separation that increased after Ramses II and his division both crossed the Orontes and established camp on the other shore. The Egyptians intended to besiege and take Kadesh rapidly. Basically, Ramses II only had at his disposal some elements of the Amon division and his personal guard, comprised of heavy infantry, being the only infantry taking part in the battle (Breasted, 1903; Ralby, 2013; Wanner, 2005).

The Hittites, in turn and according to Breasted (1905) and Cau (2011), after gathering forces near Homs and marching from Lebanon, reached the upper course of the Orontes, concealing themselves northwest of Kadesh[XI]. The Hittites were ready to set the ambush in motion[XII]. As the Hittites advanced and Ramses was notified by scouting parties about it, the Egyptians discovered that the two Hittite scouts were in reality and spies and forced them to reveal themselves and their missions. By the time they were discovered, their mission was basically accomplished, as the Hittites began to attack on Ramses camp after they were shifting positions to complete the entrapment. Being the Egyptians very vulnerable, the Hittites sought to exploit the situation and began to attack with some of their chariots the Ra division, which was near-following the Amon division[XIII]. The Hittites chariots fulfilled the mission they were designed for, disarticulating the enemies’ organization.

Witnessing the situation and after scolding his officers for failing in locating the enemy, Ramses II dispatched some messengers to reach the Ptah division and bring reinforcements, right before he was completely cut-off from the rest of the army when the Hittites pressed on his camp while pursuing some of Ra effectives. Those were fleeing from the attack, running in the direction of the camp creating thus disorder in turn[XIV]. The Hittites began then to encircle and attack the camp, which was responded with the decisive leadership of Ramses II, who and along his heavy infantry guard, organized a counter attack in order to break the siege, gathering the available soldiers and chariots. Some elements of the Amon division ran away from the area of action (Breasted, 1903; Cau, 2011; Carney, 2005; Wanner, 2005).

A battle, as it was said in the first part, can be decided by those small yet crucial elements that can define it or change its course, and with it, the course of nations and civilizations. Those elements can doom an army, or come at handy when changing their apparent doomed fate, even playing in favour of those commanders that can fully exploit the battlefield and take initiative. Also, a battle can see the fruits of many years of training, reforms and designing of the tactics and doctrines of an. This is what happened in Kadesh, when these two factors began to combine at the same time and in the right moment.

As Breasted (1903), Cau (2011) and Ralby (2013) explain, the counter-attack of the Egyptians pushed many Hittites into the river, where many tried to escape by swimming across it while others simply drowned. Ramses II and the Amon and remnants of the Ra division exemplified what the Egyptian army was designed for: to take full control over the battlefield and disarticulate the enemies’ actions. I suspect that the fact the Orontes River was at reach made Ramses II to push into that direction, being very helpful for him for he took advantage of it. Moreover, and as Carney (2011) points out, there was an asset that allowed this tactical superiority: the very same Egyptian chariot, for it was lighter and fast, therefore allowing a rapid regroup or escape. Only this time it allowed a faster counterattack, proving superior over the heavily armoured but not manoeuvrable chariots of the Hittites.

Breasted (1903) clearly states that the direction of the counterattack was on the most logical direction: southwards towards the bulk of the army. In any case, the Orontes came into the scene as an unexpected yet very valuable aid in inflicting casualties enough to allow Ramses II escape and with it, the prospects of a fast Hittite victory.

Wrong decisions and luck are also integral part of war, and they are especially important during a battle, as they can have the same impact of the characteristics of the battlefield and the decisions taken by the commanders of the armies. This was also the case in Kadesh. The rapid decision of Ramses II to counterattack is by now evident on its effects, for when all out of the sudden another Egyptian division appears in the scene with infantry and chariots, being able to mount another, more organized and manned counterstrike against the camp (Breasted, 1905).

There was another decision that decided the encounter. Muwatalli chose not to fully commit the infantry, not allowing the Hittites to apply at the fullest their sort of ‘blitzkrieg’ tactics when there was a chance[XV]. And this decision also doomed the Hittite troops that took Ramses II camp, as they were looting the site leaving the Hittites chariots without any crew (Breasted, 1903; Cau, 2011; Wanner, 2005)[XVI].

Right after the Ramses II and his guard, the Amon, what was left of the Ra and the Ptah division destroyed the Hittites at the camp, they neutralized a second Hittite attack with chariots, pressing further the Hittites into Kadesh, where they took shelter. After the fight of the first day was over, Ramses II punished the commanders of the troops that fled the area (Breasted, 1903; Cau, 2011; Ralby, 2013; Wanner, 2005). The Hittites, despite their initial advantage and due to a combined series of factors, were defeated. Further fighting took place for two more days. However, the Battle of Kadesh was far from being a decisive factor for either side, or even far from showing an absolute victor and an absolute looser.

The consequences of the Battle of Kadesh on both empires will be reviewed on the last part, further explaining why Kadesh was not the classical battle where a nation rises and another nation falls.



[I] One must also bear in mind that the terrain where the Egyptian Empire and the Hittite Empire allowed the utilization of war chariots.

[II] And this was mainly the case with the Egyptian chariots. For Egypt, the introduction of the chariot meant a revolution in warfare. See: Steedman, 1996, p. 85.

[III] The Hittites also had a similar model of army. During the battle, both models were put into action, as surprise attacks, the utilization of spies and chariots were used as the bulk of the strategies. See: Ralby, 2013, pp. 54-55.

[IV] In fact, the Battle of Kadesh saw between 2000 or 2500 chariots versus 3700 chariots. See Bergamino and Palitta, 2015, pp. 52-53. Cau (2011) establishes the number of 2000 versus 3000 chariots. Cfr., p. 19.

[V] In addition, and following Wanner (2005), this was the first battle with tactics being known and registered.

[VI] For instance, Wanner (2005) remarks that by retaking Kadesh, Egypt could retake the northern territories lost to the Hittites. This suggest that Kadesh could be used as a base for further campaigns up north, thus increasing its strategic value as maximize of power projection.

[VII] Although the rived played a part in delaying the advance of the Egyptians, the same Ramses II desire to reach Kadesh as soon as possible played its own role as well.

[VIII] See: Cau, 2011; p.19.

[IX] The two last ones, but especially the Sutekh, were very delayed in their advance, with Sutekh apparently not taking part in the battle.

[X] They were tasked with locating Ramses II’s positions and to deviate or deceive the Egyptian army. See: Breasted, 1903, p. 24.

[XI] Carney (2011) points out that the Hittites were expecting an attack from Egypt against Kadesh, preparing for the battle. See: Carney, 2011, p.7.

[XII] See: Wanner, 2005.

[XIII] Wanner (2005) explains that their tactics were to destroy each of Egypt’s four divisions separately, one by one.

[XIV] Some joined the Ptah division in the south, while the enemy infantry, following Breasted (1903), simply blocked any route of escape.

[XV] Cau (2011) suggests that Hittites’ fear of the combination chariots and archers of the Egyptian army was a reason why Muwatalli decided to keep the infantry out of the combat.

[XVI] The looting also contributed in condemning the Hittite troops and what would have been a decisive Hittite victory. A clear weak point from the Hittite side, causing them to lose control of the battlefield, as it seems that, following Wanner (2005), Hittite and their allies’ troops were paid with what they could loot from the enemies.



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