I am all thumbs. Put me at a computer keyboard, and I am trouble. I am the lord of the typo. Put my on an iPhone and things get exponentially worse. Put me on an iPhone with that quaint function known as autocorrect, and I am capable of almost anything. Broken friendships. Broken homes. World War III.
Curiously enough, I believe that my failings as a communicator have helped me as a military historian. I think a lot about how commanders issue their orders, about the precise words they use, and about how their subordinates interpret the orders they receive. Most of us simply assume that the process works. The boss says “do this” and the underlings do it. But it isn’t that simple at all.
Take the modern German army, for example. German doctrine has always stressed short, crisp orders, directives that allow subordinates a great deal of leeway in carrying them out. Indeed, this has always been one of the German army’s key operational strengths: it tended to act (and react) more quickly than its adversaries, since it spent less time sending detailed and lengthy messages up and down the chain of command.
Such a vibrant command style was a particular benefit in the opening days of World War II. The pace of the new armored operations meant that German commanders had to devise a new language, a sort of “Panzer shorthand.” Consider the experience of 7th Panzer Division in the French campaign of 1940, commanded by none other than General Erwin Rommel. A glance at the division’s radio traffic from those days is revealing. To call the messages “short” is to understate the case considerably. The neighboring 5th Panzer Division radioed Rommel on May 13, 1940: “Angriff 0430,” which might better be rendered, “Our attack is going in at 0430 hours.” At 0550 that morning, Rommel requested a situation report from his own 7th Infantry Regiment with a two-word message: “Wie Lage?” (“How situation?”). Its response: “0600 S.R. 7 Fluss Maas überschritten” (“7th Infantry Regiment crossed the Meuse at 0600”). When Rommel wanted his division to pursue the beaten French on May 14, his orders consisted of a terse “Rommel 1930 Verfolgung mit allem Waffen” (“Rommel at 1930: Pursuit with all weapons”), and when he wanted his engineers brought up to help repair the bridges near Arras, his message to the divisional staff was “Rommel Pioniere nach vorne” (“Rommel: Pioneers to the front”). This was the new language of mobile warfare—crisp, concise, and stripped down to essentials.
Sharp, eh? The Wehrmacht on parade, circa 1939–40! One perfect campaign after another.
Erm… not exactly.
Even in these successful campaigns, the Germans had their moments of confusion. On May 13, Rommel received a radio message that his 7th Motorized Regiment was “eingeschlossen,” which was bad news indeed, as bad as it gets. “Eingeschlossen” is German for “surrounded.” Showing his characteristic aggressiveness, Rommel did just about what you’d expect. He gathered up every man and vehicle he could find and rode off to relieve his trapped formation.
When he arrived at the front, however, he realized that the reports had been wrong. A quick comparison of the relevant transmissions revealed a simple and very understandable typo. It turned out that the regiment had been “eingetroffen” (“struck”) by a French attack involving a handful of tanks near Onhaye, not “eingeschlossen.” By the time the relief column arrived, the regiment had the situation well in hand all by itself, and it certainly was nowhere near being encircled.
It seems to me that there are two lessons here. The first: while the “fog of war” is an ever-present battlefield feature, it increases with the speed of the operation.
The second? Proofread before you hit that “send” button!
Challenge to the readership: can you think of any other moments in which a garbled transmission, a misunderstood order, or a plain old typo affected the course of a battle?