An exercise in military terms was the practical rehearsal of an operation or series of operations by a unit, sub-unit or formation. It allowed commanders to develop their tactical knowledge and each individual to practice his role collectively with his colleagues. Such exercises ranged from testing administrative and planning functions in movement and deployment only to formation exercises which tested everything from planning, movement right through to battle. Both Field Forces and Home Guard carried out exercises, sometimes combined with Civil Defence.
The particular issue that an exercise was designed to cover was know as the “object”. An opening “narrative” would be issued, giving the commander taking part all the necessary information about the enemy and friendly troops and the task to be undertaken. The scale of the “narrative” would depend upon the unit being exercised – a scheme for a battalion may only require a few paragraphs while those for divisions or Army commands would be much more detailed.
Exercises were of the following types:
Tactical Exercises Without Troops (T.Es.W.T) formed the basis for the tactical training of commanders, from platoon level upwards. As suggested, the exercise did not involve any troops and was largely of a theoretical nature. They were a means of collective training of commanders in tactical decision making. The object of the exercise and opening narrative were presented followed by a “problem” to overcome which was to be dealt with in the form of an appreciation which could be discussed collectively and lessons learned.
These were designed for the training of headquarters, signal and administrative units. These units were to function and move as they would do in battle. All necessary reconnaissances were to be carried out, conferences held and all orders, instructions and messages issued. The orders etc that would have been issued were then passed to the Umpires. Umpires would assess the results in light of the enemy plans and then paint the picture or supply the information required in the most realistic manor possible. This required great skill as if for example a military commander taking part in an exercise ordered a division to move, the Umpire would have to assess the time required for these orders to reach divisional, brigade and unit staffs, the time required to move to start points and the time required for the move itself, the time to re-establish signals etc. The exercise had to be conducted at a pace that would be expected in battle.
Skeleton Exercises could either be one-sided or two-sided.
In these exercises, the “enemy” was represented by a skeleton force controlled by the Director. The commander on the side actually taking part would have complete freedom within the limits of orders received from his superior commander. Control of the “enemy” by the Director enabled him to stage the desired situations. The Control staff or Umpires usually represented the “enemy” and would create incidents based on the information of the “enemy” plan and umpire the reactions of the side actually taking part.These exercises where useful for teaching the elementary lessons of tactics, control and co-operation as the Director could predetermine situations. The commander of the “full strength” side would as a rule, be given orders to carry out a specific task (e.g. “to capture A” or “to defend B”).
In these exercises, both sides were represented by troops and both commanders would have the freedom in the execution of their tasks. The Director would only intervene to prevent an unreal situation developing or a false lesson being learnt. The Control staff would issue the relevant orders, instructions and intelligence summaries to put both sides clearly in the picture before the exercise started. During the exercise the Control staff would represent the next headquarters above the most senior headquarters being exercised on each side and if necessary flanking headquarters of units which were not taking part. The Umpire staff umpired events as they happened on the merits of the opposing plans. As a rule they were more realistic in terms of the practice of command and of more interest to the troops but were less useful in teaching a specific tactical lesson as the tactical situation could not be predetermined.
Trials and Demonstrations
Various units were often involved in trials to assess new techniques or devise new Battle Drill to overcome specific situations such as the breaching of obstacles. These techniques were often demonstrated to higher Commands such as Corps and Army Commands in the form of a staged and rehearsed demonstration to reflect a definite tactical lesson. However such tactical demonstrations should not necessarily give the impression that tactical problems could be solved by the use a drill – it was important that alternative solutions should be sought for and emphasized that the solution may differ with another set of circumstances.
Directing and Umpiring
Exercises were directed by a Director and put into effect through Control and Umpire staffs. For small scale exercises the Control and Umpire staffs were sometimes combined.
Director: He decided the objectives and scope of the exercise and gives an outline of the setting he required. During the exercise he directs the course of events to ensure that the objectives are being attained and the lessons taught.
Control staff: Its function was to provide the detailed setting of the exercise and issue orders to control the course of events and ensure implement the decisions of the Director.
Umpire staff: The function of the Umpire staff was to run the exercise with realism by umpiring acts and incidents as they actually happened. They also kept the Control staff and the Director fully informed of what was taking place at any time and the plans and intentions of the troops taking part.
A difficulty in carrying out exercises designed to give commanders and troops practice in the action to be taken in the face of the enemy, was to produce the realism of war. The Umpire was to meet this difficulty and their main tasks were:
Good umpiring was dependent on giving accurate description of the type and effect of fire, visibility of obstacles etc – this was referred to as “picture painting”.
During an exercise, the duty of the umpire was as follows:
To notify troops with whom they are working the direction and intensity of hostile fire and action in their vicinity and of its effect on the progress of operations
To represent commanders of, and liaison officers from, all supporting arms and adjacent units not otherwise represented in the exercise but the conduct of the fight must lie in the hands of the commanders.
By means of umpire rulings to represent the probable result of the enemy’s counter-measures to actions taken by the troops.
It was vital that such “picture painting” did not give commanders information that they would not get in war. The conduct of the fight must lie in the hands of the commanders and when describing the situation, umpires must leave it to the commander to act accordingly.
The use of flags was often a method of indicating enemy fire. When enemy posts opened fire the umpire would stand up and point out the targets by successively raising and lowering their flags in the direction of the target, the rate of movement representing the rate of fire. Blank ammunition, rattles, lamps and thunder flashes wee also used to add to the realism.
The Training of an Infantry Battalion, MTP No. 37, WO, June 1940
Standing Orders and Instructions for Exercises (3rd Edition), GHQ Home Forces, 1943
Officer’s Aide-Memoire for Exercises or “Things Often Left Undone”, Northern Command, June 1942
Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944, T.H. Place, Routledge, 2000