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Logistics Lessons from History

by COL Steven A. Bourgeois, ADLER 07

During a recent staff ride in Belgium, it became obvious that many of the logistics lessons learned during the Battle of the Bulge and the Army of 1944 are as relevant today as they were then. Our focus for the staff ride was the north shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, or Kampfgruppe Pieper (KP), the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions, and the 393rd and 394th Infantry Regiments. These units and their actions in December of 1944 set the stage for our discussion of logistics of the time during the Battle of the Bulge.

As we trudged across the battlefields of Belgium, we learned about the heroics of some very brave soldiers. Soldiers that understood what it took to fight and win on that "high-intensity conflict" battlefield. One of the most important impressions we were all left with was that there are immutable truths in the Army. Ever wonder why Sun Tsu's Art of War is still read today? It is because the principles that undergird the art of war are as applicable today as they were hundreds of years ago. Technology may impact the application of the principles, but the principles are still as sound today as they were in previous battles.

The intent of this article is not to make you an expert on the Battle of the Bulge or the history of logistics. Rather, it is to highlight some of those immutable truths that have stood the test of time. Whether your unit is preparing for a CTC rotation or you are ramping up for a real world deployment, take a moment and digest these observations. The tactics, techniques and procedures that those soldiers followed so many years ago are still sound. They can spell the difference between success or failure on today's battlefields.

Here then are 10 lessons learned from history.

1. Point of injury care is the key to survival. History reports that only 33 soldiers out of 1,134 casualties suffered in the city of Bastogne died of wounds. The key to this incredible story was point of injury care provided by the medic. The task organization found in Infantry Regiments was very similar to what we find in today's Army. Each division had a medical battalion. This battalion was task organized into three medical line companies, or one company per regiment. Based on this task organization, each infantry battalion had somewhere between 30 and 40 medics per battalion. Doctors were normally found at the battalion or regimental aid stations. These stations were about 500 meters from the forward line of troops (FLOT). Unit litter teams were responsible for evacuating soldiers to the aid stations, sometimes carrying wounded up to four miles. Once at the aid station, the wounded soldier's chances were pretty good that he would survive. Quick aid and speedy evacuation are critical. The quicker we can treat a soldier at the point of injury the better chance of survival. Because of the speed and agility of today's mechanized forces, units will be far removed from the aid stations.

2. Well-constructed fighting positions save soldier lives. In the early morning hours of 15 December 1944, the 393rd Infantry Regiment was subjected to an intense and overwhelming artillery barrage. The amazing thing is that they suffered only one death out of over 700 soldiers. WHY? Because they had well-constructed fighting positions. Over time the American army also learned to build shelves in the fighting position to store equipment and protect it during indirect fire attacks. Logs for overhead cover, earthen burms, and parapets were all integral parts of a successful fighting position. On today's battlefield, the range and accuracy of indirect fire weapons have improved. Combat service support (CSS) units still present lucrative targets for enemy artillery and mortars.

3. Command and control (C2) of the rear fight is as important as C2 in any fight. Early in the Battle of the Bulge, there was a lack of a unified command to orchestrate the rear area fight. This resulted in many small unit separate fights, and also in a slow response and high POW rate for the Americans. American CSS units had never had to fight the rear area battle. C2 of the rear battle is a critical aspect of today's battlefield. Irregular forces, special operations forces, even bypassed elements or "leakers" from the main battle, are realistic threats to the soft- skinned CSS vehicles in the rear area. The ability to neutralize these threats in the rear will be critical to maintaining continuous support.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The forward support battalion (FSB) must be able to command and control the rear area fight in the brigade support area (BSA).

4. Situational awareness, a soldier's best friend. On the morning of 17 December, soldiers of B Battery, 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, were stopped at a hasty check point just south of the city of Malmedy. They were told that they should not proceed further because there were reports of enemy activity. Ignoring this advice, they proceeded down the road, were intercepted by the lead elements of Kampfgruppe Peiper, and were either killed in the initial contact or subsequently killed in what was to become known as the massacre at Malmedy. Situational awareness--knowing where the enemy is--remains just as critical to us today. It will become more so as we expand the division and brigade areas of responsibility. Corps throughput convoys, main support battalion (MSB) Class II/IV pushes, and logistical packages (LOGPACS) will become easy prey if they stumble into an enemy formation in the rear area. Solid intelligence summaries, accurate battle tracking by the S-3, and solid debriefings of just-arrived convoys help paint a picture that the S-2 can turn into pre-convoy intelligence briefings. All convoy commanders must be situationally aware of what is happening on the battlefield. Enemy infiltrations, bypass criteria of the forward combat forces, templating of enemy reconnaissance assets--all help to define the threat to logistics convoys in the rear area.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS: Make sure the battalion S-2's intelligence briefing is an integral part of all pre-convoy inspections and preparations.

5. Employment of crew-served weapons is still important. During the early phases of the battle, individual bazooka crews were able to attrit Kampfgruppe Pieper's combat power. Later in the fight, well-trained bazooka crews were devastating at Elsenborne ridge against German armor. CSS units today still lack significant firepower, as they did in 1944, to fight the rear battle. Therefore, it is essential that units emplace what they do have in such a way as to get "the best bang for the buck." Even though we are improving mobility, CSS units remain less mobile than their combat arms counterparts. The requirement to withdraw under pressure remains an FSB mission essential task list (METL) task. The proper emplacement of all available crew-served firepower will be critical to the accomplishment of this task. Just as in 1944, a well-placed and well-trained crew may disrupt an enemy advance just long enough to allow the relocation of critical and limited CSS assets.

6. Contractors on the battlefield are not new and are here to stay. Bare base contracting is a time-proven viable concept. Throughout 1944 the ability to move supplies forward was very strained. Allied bombings had severely damaged rail lines; critical Class IX parts were used to keep the Red Ball express running. Wheeled transportation was literally at the breaking point. The bottom line was that to fill the need, the First Army established numerous local contracts to provide goods and services to keep the combat force running. Two hundred tank engines were rebuilt at the Gnome-Rhone plant in Paris. Other local Paris contracts included tanker helmets and oxygen/acetylene. As the forces moved into Belgium, First Army established production contracts for small arms and artillery parts and tire recapping. The logjam in getting repair parts to the front required the use of local contracts. The need for massive amounts of supplies, equipment, and services to maintain an Army in the field will require some sort of local procurement capability. Even though finding M-1 rebuild facilities is extremely remote, more conventional capabilities will be required.

7. Large stockpiles of supplies on the battlefield are a thing of the past. The Army of the 21st century will be a highly mobile force that covers a lot of ground. Stockpiles of supplies, as was seen in the city of Malmedy, will be too cumbersome to support that force. This will cause distribution of supplies to become the long pole in the tent for the Army. Malmedy is a classic example of why the Army is going to a distribution-based system. Ammunition, Class VII, and Class III were all stockpiled in supply depots operated by the Ordnance Corps. Had Kampfgruppe Pieper turned north through Malmedy instead of heading west, it would have stumbled upon a significant portion of the First Army's CSS stockpiles. In one ammunition supply point (ASP) alone, the 57th Ordnance Company destroyed over 200 tons of ammunition that could not be retrograded. The speed of the penetration and the inability of the rear echelon troop to halt the advance highlight just how vulnerable supplies are when located on the ground. As today's Army becomes leaner and moves away from the iron mountain or brute force logistics, it must become very adept at making the distribution system work.

8. Intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) and BSA location are still critical tasks for protecting the force. German artillery targeted major supply points at Malmedy, Versiers, and St. Vith to begin the attack. The same tactic can be expected on today's battlefield. CSS units make great targets--soft-skinned vehicles with supplies such as Class V and fuel that go "boom" in the night.

9. MSRs remain the Achilles heal of a task force. As the Army moves to a distribution-based supply system, the MSR becomes an even more critical lifeline for the combat task force. Both the 2nd ID and the 99th ID learned this during the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge. As they attacked northeast to the Roer Dams, they both relied on a single MSR for supplies. Within hours of the opening salvos, this MSR was at risk, causing both divisions to stop the attack and reposition forces into their rear areas to protect their supply lifeline.

10. Military vans (MILVANS) and palletized loading system (PLS) flat racks are the 5-gallon gas cans for the year 2000. During the fall of 1944 the method of distributing fuel was through the use of 5-gallon fuel cans. The Army did not have heavy expanded mobility tactical truck (HEMTT) fuelers and 7,500-gallon tankers. The combat forces would refuel, then throw the 5-gallon cans to the side of the road. The shortage for these gas cans became so acute that the Army offered a small reward to civilians who turned them into the supply units. Today we use MILVANS and PLS flat racks to get supplies forward. MILVANS make great storage areas, offices, and guard tower bases. Flat racks make great floors and above-ground storage areas. The problem is that as they get consumed and they are not available to transport supplies. We then run into the same problem that the Army of 1944 did--plenty of supplies but no capability to get them forward.

We can learn a lot from history. A great scholar once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."1That remains true today. The cost of learning these lessons during World War II was high. It would be shameful to have to pay the price again to learn the same lessons. Don't doom your unit to repeat history.


1. George Santayana (1863-1952), Life of Reason, "Reason in Common Sense," Chapter 12 (1905-6).

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