Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Great Game

It's only logical and normal for the militaries of nations to keep an eye on their neighbours and to devote a level of study to fighting them. Famous examples are War Plan Red, or the US plans for a war with the UK in the 1930's. At the same time the Great Game was a period of intense political manoeuvring between Russia and Great Britain over the area of Afghanistan and the North-West frontier of India, this lasted up until the first few decades of the 20th century.
So you would think that plans for war on that front were extremely detailed, however, when Giffard Le Quesne Martel arrived at the Army HQ in Quetta in 1930 he found that no work had been done on the subject of a war in the North-West since before the First World War. This might explain why the British lost the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919.
Martel found that most of the older officers were still thinking in terms of infantry  forces moving slowly forward with construction of road, rail and pipe lines to support them. These plans predicted it'd take three weeks to reach Kandahar, and this was relying on supplies being captured. Martel judged that the slow pace of advance would mean the Afghanistanis would have plenty of time to conduct a scorched earth strategy.
Martel was a modern thinker and had been instrumental in development of armoured warfare (and would be in the future*), and he had served on the Western Front in the First World War. He took one look at the current plans and dared to ask the question "what if we launched a flying column of tanks and aircraft right into the heart of the enemy?"
He predicted that such a column would be able to reach Kandahar in just two days. However his idea was poopoo'ed by the senior older officers pointing out that it was their opinion tanks couldn't operate in the area, and there was no research into suitable locations for landing strips for aircraft. It was at this point Martel found out that no reconnaissance had been conducted into the subject as the last time any research was carried out had been before either the Tank or the Aircraft had been invented!

During his time in Quetta, as well as building his own tank to test a theory* he worked on the Afghanistan problem. In 1933 he decided to conduct a reconnaissance of the area, and gained permission to enter Afghanistan. So he, along with an RAF officer, loaded Martel's private car with some supplies and went on a tour of the area.These unofficial reconnaissance trips continued with another big name from British military history,  Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker, conducting a much longer and more detailed survey a few years later.
These reconnaissance missions had the officers entirely as civilians and they gained permission to enter as tourists. This was due to the situation in the great game. The Afghanistanis were terrified of upsetting Russia, which was slowly encroaching into Afghanistan. Russians were intermarrying with locals and starting to build up an ethnic presence. Equally Russian incursions into Afghanistan had happened, when they chased anti-Soviet elements who were sheltering on the Afghanistan side of the border.

During his travels Martel mentioned several incidents. Such as the rest stop at Mukker where luxury and face were of all importance to the Afghanistanis. So a high quality bath had been installed, with hot and cold taps. However the building had no plumbing. Or one of King Muhammed Nadir Shah's modernisation plans was the building of a hydro electric scheme, which would have drained all the water from the irrigation system around Kandahar leaving it a dry desert. The power plant was to have provided electric lighting for the area, which none of the locals wanted. But they did rather like their crops getting water. It should be said that it was highly unlikely that power plant would ever have been finished, as the Russian engineer conducting the project was billing Afghanistan for 200 workers wages each month, and only employing about fifty men. The rest of the money was being split between himself and the governor of Kandahar.
This was something the Chief of Police should have paid attention to. When he was given the funds for improvements of the cities roads he took his cut but failed to give a portion of it to the governor, and was promptly given a flogging. Then the offending official was sent to another province, to be police chief there.

Of final note was the ice factory at Kandahar. Parked on the banks of a waterway, downstream from several villages it drew the water for the ice from the sewage laden stream. The Afghanstanis believed that the freezing process killed all the germs. Unsurprisingly typhoid was epidemic in the area. Typhoid has an incubation period of between six and thirty days, keep that in mind for later.
Martel and his companion had brought along whiskey and soda water, and intended to use this instead of the filthy water. On their last night  at Kandahar they dined with a Muslim official, who was very devoted to his religion. It's testament to how far Afghanistan has slipped in recent years, that this Muslim, when asked permission, allowed the two British officers to bring their own whiskey to the table. Since the start of the century Afghanistan had slowly been modernising and becoming less strict. While Sharia was the basis for law it wasn't an overwhelming perfect interpretation. 
Record store in Afghanistan


 With the understanding of the Muslim official the two officers poured themselves a whiskey each, at which point a servant Martel describes as "[...]grimy individual with a dirty pail." Using his bare fingers the servant reached into the bucket and pulled out two lumps of ice which without waiting for acknowledgement he dropped into the British officers drinks. Unable to turn down the drinks after being given special permission to drink, and to do so would cause great offence of their host the two men added more whiskey in the hope it would keep them safe and drank.

Martel's tour of duty was due to finish at the end of July. After he returned to Quetta and dropped off the RAF officer he had barely enough time to immediately rush down to the air strip to catch his flight home. Five days later he was standing in front of a senior officer in the War Office in London and able to say that just eight days previously he had been in Kandahar, much to the senior officer’s surprise.
 Martel's plan for the mobile column to capture Kandahar was based around the following. Two battalions of light tanks, and a brigade of lorried infantry supported by some field guns. This force would carry two days of supplies, the force would have along some RAF ground crew as well. The force would race up the road with an overnight halt, and capture Kandahar about lunchtime of the second day. Then they'd establish a landing strip and a further two battalions of infantry would be airlifted in by a pair of transport aircraft squadrons, possibly taken from RAF forces in the Middle East if need be. This airlift over the next two days would also include a re-supply. The plan was enable them to either then move on to fight a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, or if the reason for the war was the Afghanistanis causing trouble on the Indian side of the border (Actually a real prospect at the time) then the rapid advance and capture would hopefully force the Afghansitanis to come to terms.
There's a passage in Martel’s report asking "What sort of opposition could the Afghans put up in this open country to the advance of two battalions of light tanks?"
In 1933 Martel was right, not a lot. However in 1936 the Afghans brought a number of Disston tractor tanks armed with a 37mm gun. Of course there is the question of how well they'd have been used, or if they could even have been deployed?

*Martel had an incredibly important part to play in the future, he was responsible for the invention of the Tankette and the Infantry tank. As well as his home built tanks. If you'd like to know more see my upcoming book: "Age of Invention"

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