January 20, 2010

Reading Old Magazines: The Unfortunate Necessity of Energy

Last month marked the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge’s beginning. This battle proved to be a defining event of the western front of World War II, and about 19,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in action (the British lost about 1,400 and the Germans had about 100,000 killed, wounded, or missing). Since much of the battle focused on threats to Allied supply lines, including operational fuel, I decided to commemorate the battle by reviewing an old article about the key Allied position in the Belgian town of Bastogne.

Collie Small wrote “Bastogne: American Epic” in the February 17, 1945 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, when memories of the battle were still achingly fresh. The battle took place in the Ardennes forest of Belgium, where Germany launched its final major offensive against the Allied front. German armor pressed hard against the thinly-held Allied line in Belgium, creating a bulge in the line that gave the battle its name. Eventually the Allies recovered their ground, but at the beginning the outcome was far from assured. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in and around Bastogne, where the 10th Armored Division and the 101st Airborne engaged with German armor divisions. (The actions of one 101st company are detailed in Band of Brothers; for a visceral experience, be sure to rent the miniseries on DVD).

The battle was particularly tough for U.S. troops because the German offensive wreaked havoc with Allied supply lines (in a cold, snowy environment, no less). For a time, the German army had Bastogne completely surrounded and cut off. Vital supplies were running low, including fuel: “Food and ammunition dwindled steadily and the garrison called for supplies from the air. Artillery batteries had only eleven shells per gun. There were 150 gallons of gasoline left.” BG Anthony McAuliffe, the general commanding the forces in Bastogne, couldn’t effectively attack the encroaching German tanks, because “he couldn't afford to waste even the fuel needed to warm up the tank destroyers' engines.”

General McAuliffe’s dilemma raises interesting points about energy in warfare. Supply lines have been important to warfighters for a long time; Sun Tzu wrote “We may take it then that an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.” But the conflicts in which the United States is currently engaged are very different from the armored battles of the Ardennes offensive. In Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the greatest hazards to U.S. and coalition troops is the presence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along roads used by fuel convoys. Hence, reliance on inefficient fuels is not only costly in terms of money but also in terms of lives, according to studies undertaken by the Army Environmental Policy Institute (pdf) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (pdf). As the United States ramps up its military effort in Afghanistan, let’s hope that commanders are able to apply some of these lessons and work toward a more fuel-efficient strategy with fewer related casualties.