Managing World War: The Army Service Forces and General Somervell’s Rules for Getting Things Done

World War II continues to draw the attention of historians, scholars, and military experts alike. The sheer magnitude of the global conflict still entices research, books, and studies shedding new light on the clash of military powers between the Allies and the Axis. One focal point is the relationship between warfare, logistics, and management. The victorious Allied forces had to find a proper way to project their military powers at maximum force with minimum cost in manpower, all the while accounting for the scale of global operations, scarcity of resources, hardship endured by nations, as well as political and cultural factors.

It was what Keith Grint describes as the “iceberg approach” to combat, in which a relatively small force participated in combat operations with the help of a large support element in the rear. During World War II the U.S. military drew 16.3 million citizens into service, but only 800,000 of them (5%) engaged in combat.[1] The central problem faced by the Allies was to calculate the size of a fighting army indispensable to military success balanced with enough accompanying support units, which tended to encroach upon the combat units who sought personnel from the same pool of available manpower.

The high ratio of support to combat forces was indispensable in carrying out this new pattern of conflict in which technology and material superiority were even more important than soldiers on the battlefield.

The U.S. and their Western Allies believed material superiority would make up for shortages of fighting soldiers, whose combat efficiency was often lower than those in the Wehrmacht. Indeed, this approach paid off because the Allies also managed to inflict severe damage to German army combat and logistical capabilities by wrecking the Nazi economy in Europe through strategic bombing. Due to sluggish progress in Italy, air warfare was a substitute for the real second front until 6 June 1944. After D-Day, the Allies still relied on their strategic firepower advantage to avoid Allied combat attrition, even at the cost of severe civilian casualties in Normandy and Germany during the early strategic bombing campaigns, which were later coupled with ground offensives in 1944 and 1945.[2]

The high ratio of support to combat forces was indispensable in carrying out this new pattern of conflict in which technology and material superiority were even more important than soldiers on the battlefield. This approach also had profound implications on the logistical and managerial elements of the war. To achieve material superiority coupled with seamless delivery and availability on the battlefield in large numbers, the U.S. Army, which bore most of the burden for this endeavor in Western Europe and Pacific, had to adopt a new method of arms procurement in which complex equipment had to be bought or manufactured quickly and efficiently.

The supply chain and management system the U.S. Army carried from peace into conflict was already showing its faults by 1941.[3] The global conflict demanded a rapid capacity to feed, clothe, arm, manage, and provide transport for military personnel in remote locations where hospitals, barracks, airfields, and other critical installations were simultaneously being developed. Both materials and manpower had to be delivered at the right place and at the right time.[4] As Franklin D. Roosevelt observed in 1942, the former was of less concern than the latter: “We are learning to ration materials; and we must now learn to ration manpower.”[5]

Material superiority had to be coupled with seamless delivery and availability on the battlefield in large numbers in order to achieve victory both at the Western Europe and in the Pacific. (Wikimedia)

A new entity called the Army Service Forces was conceived to execute the tasks of managing materials and manpower and formalize the long administrative tail of not only the U.S. Army, but also to a large extent the entire Allied Forces. The Army Service Forces tackled one of the biggest challenges of World War II: matching the gargantuan requirements of both European and Pacific theaters of operations with limited capabilities and resources. The problem was compounded by the needs of Allied forces in Great Britain after the loss of much of their equipment at Dunkirk in 1940, as well as the dire needs of Soviet Russia’s enormous army in the following years. Unlike the First World War, when the U.S. Army relied on French and British equipment, in World War II the famous arsenal of democracy did quite the opposite, as American lorries helped carry the Soviet Army all the way to Berlin. The Army Service Forces were practically the economic and administrative nucleus of the global war machine between 1942 and 1945, producing nearly every piece of equipment except for aircraft. This was due to the U.S. Army Air Force’s large degree of autonomy and the dire need to develop sophisticated platforms like the B-29, which consisted of over 40,540 parts and a million rivets.[6] Keeping pace with tight production schedule while incorporating innovations such as fully pressurized cabin or the Fowler flaps (today’s standard for big jet propulsion planes) effectively kept aircraft production out of sight of the Army Service Forces.

Army Service Forces shoulder sleeve insignia. (Author's Photo)

Discussion and bibliographies regarding the Army Service Forces concentrate on the activities of its organizer and commander, Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, who could be called the Founding Father of modern army logistics.[7] Although not as well known as Generals Patton, Bradley, or Eisenhower, he was by no means a stranger to the public during his tenure with the Army Service Forces. In 1942, Somervell was showcased on the covers of both Time and Life magazines, and again in Life in 1943. Somervell’s unique management approach was summarized in an article from 1944 entitled simply “Management,” which served as a blueprint for the Army Service Forces code of conduct and his personal “getting things done” manifesto.[8] According to Somervell, building any successful organization, not just the Army Service Forces, requires taking care of five critical areas:

  • Developing a precise understanding of the job to be done;
  • Installing capable personnel in key positions;
  • Providing a workable organization, which is properly adjusted to the job that needs to be done—and not the other way around;
  • Having a direct system for carrying on the activities with all the procedures being as simple and direct as possible; and
  • Developing a standardized way of measuring goals and progress—monthly progress reports in the case of Army Service Forces.

Somervell observed that while these rules are often perceived as axiomatic “too often they are overlooked or applied spasmodically.”[9] He also emphasized the importance of continuous follow-up of the results and evaluating progress through constant quantitative measurement—otherwise there is no assurance that goals can be met.

General Brehon Somervell on the covers of Time (15 June 1942) and Life (April 13 1942) magazines (Time.com/vault and Oldlifemagazines.com)

…the management rules conceived by General Brehon Somervell are no less relevant and applicable to today’s military procurement and logistical challenges than they were over 75 years ago.

There are some broad lessons to be learned from the Army Service Forces and Somervell’s approach towards managing warfare:

Lesson 1Logistics Marches Ahead of Strategy

The activities of the Army Service Forces between 1942 and 1945 demonstrated the Army can be practically run by a Service Commander with the control of allotments, funds, and personnel. During World War II, Allied operational plans were subordinated to logistical capabilities. As John D. Millet wrote in a post-war assessment of the Army Service Forces: “Particularly in a postwar period, experience had shown that service elements increase their power at the expense of other elements.”[10] Hence, high-level strategic decisions are essentially logistical decisions. Strategic decisions influence logistical plans only during the planning phase.

...high-level strategic decisions are essentially logistical decisions.

Today this pattern is compounded by complex equipment with modern platforms being more like computers on wheels than industrial-era, streamlined equipment like Sherman tank or the four-engine B-17 bomber. While logistics continues to build readiness by sustaining the units, it will inevitably be decentralized due to new technology like the 3-D printing of parts, employment of robots, and widespread use of autonomous systems. This, in turn, is likely to strengthen technology as the main driver of modern army strategy.

Lesson 2Basics Count More Than Sophisticated New Ideas

New ideas on strategy and warfare might not be necessary to accomplish complex missions as long as the axiomatic rules of an organization are not neglected. In other words, to get the job done it is enough to stick to the basics and maintain a high level of performance. Somervell was by no means an intellectual, but he was efficient, and his managerial style was as described by a subordinate as a simple game of “driving and driving to get the maximum in the way of approach or authority or funds or whatever was required in order to prosecute that particular operation.”[11]

Somervell’s rules of management might be axiomatic but are often neglected. As post-World War II analysis and operations research focused on weapons, tactics design, and empirical combat studies, there was little room to foster simplicity in management of warfare activities. Today’s high rate of specialization in a modern army does little to change this trend, but it’s nevertheless important to take care of the basics.

Lesson 3Mission-Oriented Organizations Not Obsessed with Control are More Likely to Succeed

Somervell’s experience during World War II allowed him to emphasize that different theoretical types of organizations are not crucial. It is far more important that the organization is adapted for a specific mission. While this observation stems from a conventional type of conflict that begins to fade from living memory, it is relevant in today’s environment, which is defined by the challenge of counterinsurgency operations. The U.S. Army is trying to inculcate a culture of Mission Command and maintains active presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, where—thanks not only to technological superiority but also less centralized control—it is the most proficient and deadly force, but it has still failed “to turn initial gains into durable success.”[12] The Army follows Somervell’s decentralized system of organizational control in Iraq and Afghanistan, but mission command, like the Prussian-German auftragstaktik it is based on, does not balance well against enemies without smoking guns and chains of command known in uniformed armies. If mission command continues to be just about being more efficient at eliminating the insurgents’ threat and not isolating them from local support, it will make any other goals infeasible.

Conclusion

The activities of the Army Service Forces rarely garner attention in ongoing debates about warfare. Perhaps this is because modern conflict, unlike World War II, does not rely on massive firepower and highly centralized command structures. However, the management rules conceived by General Brehon Somervell are no less relevant and applicable to today’s military procurement and logistical challenges than they were over 75 years ago.

Following nearly two decades of sustained conflict, the U.S. Army’s “...backlog of deferred readiness, procurement, and modernization requirements has grown…and can no longer be ignored.”[13] The relationship between combat readiness and logistical challenges is a topic that deserves the attention of modern militaries. It is evident that the broad lessons on management and procurement from the Army Service Forces and Somervell’s general rules warrant being revisited by today’s strategic leaders.


Tomasz Dominiak is a former journalist and editor, now working as a business and communications consultant for a variety of industries, including defense. He held assignments with Polish Armaments Group and Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Tom recently recorded a podcast on creating influence with Eric B. Maddox.


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Header Image: M4 Sherman tanks in production at Detroit Tank Arsenal (Preserved Tanks)


Notes:

[1] Keith Grint, 2007, Leadership, Management and Command. Rethinking D-DAY, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 181-185.

[2] Even in March 1945, weeks after the bombings of Dresden, the city of Wurzburg was nearly completely obliterated as a result of this approach, though it was not a target of any particular strategic importance.

[3] Logistics in World War II. Final report of the Army Service Forces. 1993 (first published in 1948). Center of Military History United States Army, Washington D.C., p. 16.

[4] Miguel Centeno, Elaine Enriquez, 2016, War and Society, Polity, p. 88.

[5] As quoted in Maury Klein, 2013, A Call to Arms. Mobilizing America for World War II, Bloomsbury Press, p. 467.

[6] Figures from Arthur Herman, 2013, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War II. Random House, New York p. 300

[7] A good example of such work is John D. Millet “The organization and Role of the Army Service Forces”, available at: https://history.army.mil/books/wwii/ASF/index.htm. A comprehensive biography of Gen Somervell was written by John Kennedy Ohl in 1994, entitled Supplying the Troops. General Somervell and American Logistics in WWII.

[8] Brehon Somervell, 1944, Management, Public Administration Review Vol. 4, No. 4 (Autumn 1944), p. 257-259.

[9] Ibidem, p. 258.

[10] John D. Millet, 1998 (first published in 1954), The Organization and Role of The Army Service Forces, Center Of Military History United States Army, Washington, D. C., p. 165.

[11] John Kennedy Ohl, 1994, Supplying the Troops. General Somervell and American Logistics in WWII, Northern Illinois University Press, p. 17.

[12] Christopher Kolenda, 2012, The Counterinsurgency Challenge. A Parable of Leadership and Decision Making in Modern Conflict, Stackpole Books,, p. 17.

[13] Summary of 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. 2018. https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf Accessed July 2018.