Friday, 2 May 2014

Heinz Guderian and the future of warfare

I've long considered doing book reviews of military books. I just never get round to it, like a lot of things.

But one book I have just finished and thought might be interesting to bring up is "Achtung - Panzer!" ("Attention - Tank/Armour!") by Heinz Guderian (1937). As a piece of reading material it's about as gripping as watching a murder mystery film that you've already seen twice before.

But as an insight into the way that militaries prepare for the future and study new technologies it does have some merit.

In the book Guderian talks at great length about the use of tanks during the 1914-18 war, then goes on to talk about how Germany has developed its own tank forces and where he sees their future (liberally sprinkled with bits of Nazi rhetoric).

What's interesting is how accurately Guderian seemed to be peering into the future. He identified from his studies three key elements to armoured warfare; concentration of force, surprise, and correct terrain selection. The German invasion of France was the epitome of this theory as it concentrated most of the German armoured forces to one area, achieveing great surprise by attacking out of the Ardennes forest, and targeting an area that was mostly flat and ideal terrain for the operation of armour. The coalition "left hook" during the 1991 Iraq war shared similar attributes.

He also showed foresight in understanding the immense value of armoured reconnaissance forces, radios in tanks, mobile infantry and engineers able to accompany the tanks, and the use of aircraft as mobile artillery and scouts.

In an era where everyone is keen to deduce whether will be fighting the next war the same way as the last one or indeed in a completely different manner, it would be most helpful if we had someone to hand who could so accurately peer beyond the mists of the modern horizon.

And the book does raise a number of questions about our contemporary environment.

For a start, why is it that we've reverted to the old model ratio for armoured brigades of 1 regiment to 3 infantry battalions (Money being the most likely answer) when, as Guderian pointed out and time and experience reinforced, a near 50:50 mix of tanks with infantry, or even a slight bias towards the armour, tended to provide the best results. 

And secondly why is it that we always seem so unprepared for what the future holds? As mentioned above Guderian came to the conclusions he did by studying the past in great detail. He correctly surmised that many of the problems with British tank use in the last war stemmed from their piecemeal deployment, their use on unsuitable terrain, and the fact that that this new weapon was gradually rolled out over time, giving the Germans the chance to prepare new weapons and tactics to try and counter them.

Why then did we not learn the past lessons of our peace keeping interventions/counter insurgency work with regards to the dangers posed by mines and IEDs for example? (though thankfully we do seem to be learning that lesson now).

It does make me wonder whether we will see the next great development in warfare coming? Or will we have another "the bomber will always get through" moment instead?

20 comments:

  1. "as Guderian pointed out and time and experience reinforced, a near 50:50 mix of tanks with infantry"

    This is meaningless. I know it from Bundeswehr history; the original 1:1 ratio was understood as one tank to one infantry/Panzergrenadier battalion. The tank battalions meanwhile received tanks with a higher readiness rate, which changes the ratio. Expected loss rates are now different, so the ratio after a week of campaigning is different than the original expectation. The German Panzergrenadier battalion lost its 4th rifle company. It lost its heavy weapons (mortar) company. It moved from trucks to IFVs with less dismounts.
    So even if we still had "1:1", the ratio would actually be very different.

    There are other changes as well; today's infantry carries ATGMs, whereas at Guderian's time and till the 80's this was the job of dedicated AT troops.

    "As mentioned above Guderian came to the conclusions he did by studying the past in great detail."

    Patton said so as well, and I agree.

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    1. @ S O, hello again,

      Guderian was writing about the proportion of Tank battalions to Infantry battalions moving forward, and history has proved him right about the need for an equal mix and that the two cannot survive without each other. Too few tanks and you end up with the armour tied too closely to the infantry and lacking sufficient punch. Too many tanks and you concentrate too much combat power over a small frontage and have insufficient infantry support for sustained operations.

      Troops of Guderian's era had their own AT support organic to battalions, anti-tank rifles, and later panzerfausts.

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    2. WW2 infantry had substantial AT only at regimental level - everything else was man-portable or not in the TO&E. A divisions' main AT firepower was in a dedicated AT force, and separate from any tank/infantry balance musings.

      Here is an example:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_Panzer_Division_%28Wehrmacht%29#Organization

      www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de/Zusatz/Heer/Infanterie-Division.htm
      an infantry regiment had 3 rifle battalions, one infantry gun coy, one ATG coy - crew-served AT was at regimental level

      Meanwhile, the division had the more important motorised "Panzerabwehrabteilung" AT detachment (battalion) with three ATG companies (which were the bigger and in practice often only ATGs during '42-'45).


      All those old remarks about simple rules of thumbs have to be considered on the context of their time and are simply useless today. I think I once used this "1:1" ratio once to decry the grunt-weak Panzergrenadierbataillone as well, but it's really on feet of clay.

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    3. I'm sorry but they had AT weapons available at battalion. Not many, but they had some.

      The rough balance across the division of tanks and infantry is still important today. Anti-tank weapons are proliferating, not going the other way. The kind of situations a modern division might run into are really not much different to the ones a division would have 75 years ago.

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    4. Nowadays infantry has Eurospike (2,000 m) in Germany.
      Back in 1945 they had Panzerschreck (150 m).

      One is a tank killer, the other is an insufficient self defence weapon which can barely be used to defend terrain with very short lines of sight.

      Divisions of "75 years ago" held a line, moved a line, penetrated a line and ultimately the motorized ones might dash forward to exploit a breakthrough.
      A modern army formation manoeuvres in a void, with no line anywhere.
      The security effort is entirely different. Fully motorised forces are now the only ones available, thus they're the ones called upon to clear woodland or settlements. German motorised forces of WW2 were not meant for this at all.

      The challenges are very different and need a completely new appraisal.

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    5. Ah yes, your theory about there being no lines.

      Except of course for the practical application of modern forces in conventional campaigns such as the last two gulf dust ups, the Falklands etc. where both sides held lines, tried to penetrate lines, and used motorized forces to dash forward and exploit breakthroughs!

      The British Army does not contain fully motorized forces. Nor does the the US army. Nor does the Germany army that I know of. You say that German motorized forces were not designed for clearing woodland or settlements which is odd, because that's exactly what they were designed (and used) for. The evidence is fairly clear that this is what the infantry component of a division was designed to do, along with forming the forward line on the defensive.

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    6. Did you ever look at the ODS maps? An Iraqi MRD defended like 100-200 km of desert. That's not a front line, that's a picket line. That MRD had no substantial support by its neighbouring divisions.
      The Iraqis had front lines in Kuwait, but the thin defences westward of it proved that Iraq was actually not able to maintain defensible front lines from the Jordanian border to the coast.

      Falklands saw no front lines; there were strong points and bases, and the extended Port Stanley base had field fortifications - on the regimental-size level. There was no front line that had to be penetrated to reach Pt.Stanley.

      The Iraqis had no front lines during OIF to speak of.

      There was a front line in South Ossetia, but that was due to the valley terrain and high density of forces (2+ divisions attacking in a single valley).

      "The British Army does not contain fully motorized forces."
      This looks so wrong I suppose there's a language issue at work here.

      "You say that German motorized forces were not designed for clearing woodland or settlements which is odd, because that's exactly what they were designed (and used) for."

      Totally not. Infantry regiments and light infantry (mountain troops, Jäger) were the preferred forces for this. Motorized infantry divisions were meant to follow the Panzer Div spearheads and establish encirclement lines quickly, or to act as QRF on the defence.
      The German army of 1939-1945 was about 85% marginally motorised infantry (or static) divisions, with ~15% being 'fast troops' or light troops (horse cav, Jäger, mountain). The precious motorised divisions were totally not meant to be used where they would be badly inhibited by being comprised of 1/5th drivers and a lack of road choices.

      "The evidence is fairly clear that this is what the infantry component of a division was designed to do"
      For fully motorised divisions: Villages or small patches of woodland; yes. But the employment of fast divisions to clear an extended woodland area, or capture a city, was considered "artfremd" ("counter to its nature") and either as a mistake or as a regrettable exception.

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    7. Some of the poor quality Iraqi divisions to the west had to defend long lines, which they routinely protected with minefields that had to be broken through, but certainly in the Kuwait area and in the reserve areas the Iraqi's had established lines, dug in, with support. Had you studied the maps as hard as you claim you'd know this.

      In the FI there were a number of organised lines such as the ones around Goose Green and the hill area protecting Stanley. Just because the Argentines didn't lay a massive trail of connecting barbed wire doesn't stop those positions being referred to as "lines" as is understood in the common military vernacular.

      In OIF Baghdad alone was essentially one large "line", as were many of the positions around it that connected back to Baghdad. Again, just because barbed wire wasn't laid in mass quantities doesn't stop these positions being recognised as "lines" in the common military sense.

      As for the British army, I was pointing out that not all units of it are mechanised, and even some within the armoured forces are equipped only with Mastiff as opposed to Warrior.

      Relating to the German motorized forces, I perhaps should have included "infantry" in there to aid the understanding, in the sense of the motorized infantry that accompanied the tanks in the armoured divisions. That was my fault, I apologise.

      But the point still stands, their job was to clear positions in aid of the armour, which included extensive woodland, towns or cities, or other heavily defended positions, in order to open routes for the armour or to open road routes for their resupply. Guderian is quite explicit about the need to bring infantry along to support the tanks and to clear dense objectives.

      Rommel's advance into France for example required;
      - The clearing of the Ardennes by engineers and infantry,
      - After an armour led push to Dinant the infantry were brought up to clear the town and help the engineers bridge the river, at which point the infantry had to clear and hold the bridgehead until armour could be brought across.
      - The force then had to clear extensive woodland to the south-west and secure Philippeville for communications purposes more than anything.

      And so on and so forth. What the textbook says about not using certain divisions for is all well and good, but the reality is that the enemy will set themselves up where they choose, and unless you want them plowing into your supply lines then at some point rather soon you have to figure out a way to defeat or capture them. Hence why even armoured forces often have no choice but to clear out major/extensive urban or woodland areas, because waiting a week for the foot sloggers to catch up and do it for you is not an option.

      Which is why you take infantry and artillery along with your tanks. And why there has to be a degree of balance, because one without the other is a waste of time. Which is the precise same conclusion that all the major proponents of armoured warfare came to both before the second world war and then confirmed later having had practical experience.

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    8. "certainly in the Kuwait area (...) had established lines, (...). Had you studied the maps (...) you'd know this."
      Oh, come on. I even mentioned the front line in Kuwait and why they didn't disprove the point.

      "In the FI there were a number of organised lines such as the ones around Goose Green and the hill area protecting Stanley."

      Those were field fortifications and I mentioned them, but they were no front lines above regimental-size level. The paras were free to manoeuvre on the island until they engaged the fortified bases. That's equivalent to Vauban's fortresses securing 18th century France and linear battle formations during the same period, not to World War-like front lines. And that's a most important difference. It means outflanking is still possible on the operational level - which it isn't against a continuous defended front line.

      "motorized infantry that accompanied the tanks in the armoured divisions"
      They weren't meant to assault cities or forests either. In fact, Nehring, Guderian et al emphasized that these (later renamed Panzergrenadiere) were meant to fight together with the tanks, and thus preferably on tank-friendly terrain. Thus the early IFV concept.
      What we're lacking now isn't the equivalent of a Panzerdivision, but the equivalent of the old line divisions, a Infanteriedivision. We cannot establish a 1,000 km front line or afford to clear Black Forest-sized woodland areas (of which there are many in East Europe).
      Look at how much trouble the Americans had in Hürtgenwald '45 with what we'd call mechanized infantry divisions nowadays.

      "Hence why even armoured forces often have no choice but to clear out major/extensive urban or woodland areas, because waiting a week for the foot sloggers to catch up and do it for you is not an option. "
      Sure, but we don't have the forces to do this repeatedly. We're too short on infantry for this and it's been doctrine since the 60's to avoid cities and woodland for this reason preferably. So we either need to adapt doctrine some more so we could have lines of communications around non-secured areas, develop a substitute for infantry qty or we need to gain qty of infantry.
      Western (and Russian) army forces as they are right now are too weak on infantry. The Russians compensate for this with almost a million lightly armed paramilitary troops (FSB, Ministry of Interior etc.), we don't.

      And there has to be a balance, but rules of thumb from the 40's don't matter any more because the meaning of "one tank battalion per one infantry battalion" has changed in the meantime.

      BTW, I have learned to like the combination of tank battalion, armoured infantry battalion and truck-mobile light infantry (also qualified for either airborne or mountain). The tanks can cooperate with the armoured infantry on terrain with long lines of sight and the light infantry can deal in terrain with very short lines of sight (and protect the support troops with ATGMs when on open terrain).
      This appears to make sense on Bde or Div level (~ 1:1:1 Bn ratio). Meanwhile, replacement tanks and reservist tank crews should be available to refill the tank battalion(s), so attrition doesn't change the balance randomly.

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    9. I think it's a bit much to expect the Iraqi's to run a line all the way to the Jordanian border! Besides, they weren't aware of Coalition GPS at the time and they considered the western deserts impassable due to navigational concerns (they couldn't do it, so they assumed everyone else would have the same problem). In their minds they had several consecutive lines that the allies would have to punch right through.

      In the Falklands the lines at Goose Green were stretched across a small slither of land. There was no open flank. The line went from one end of Darwin Hill to the other. Around Stanley the hill based defensive positions were within visual and support fire range of each other. There was no flank to be passed. It was fight through the positions or nothing. Both positions would meet the commonly understood definition of "lines".

      Guderian was quite explicit that the lesson learned from WW1 was the need to have mobile infantry and artillery to clear fixed positions, suppress anti-tank positions and clear dense terrain such as urban or woodland to assist the armour. He knew from his experience and study that armoured attacks would inevitably have to deal with such positions along the way.

      I also think NATO is well fitted for infantry. Between the European nations alone we have an impressive sized force and if we conscripted those numbers would swell immensely if needed.

      I also believe it to be largely impossible to try and work your logistics around enemy concentrations in the rear. Unless the ground is favourably firm or you can conjure up some kind of massed tracked resupply system.

      As for the ratios, I can live with a 3:5 armoured/infantry in a division. But I think once you go below that you're getting into rocky ground. You're giving up too much punch.

      And lastly, the problem I have with truck borne infantry in an armoured division is that history has demonstrated repeatedly that once the weather deteriorates they become a liability, doing more to obstruct the lines of communication than contributing usefully. I'd be more interested in the possibilities offered by a motorcycle battalion to be honest. But sometimes we're stuck with the kit we have and so Mastiff it is for one battalion in each of our armoured brigades.

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    10. "navigational concerns" - rather a political gambit.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LORAN

      "In the Falklands the lines at Goose Green were stretched across a small slither of land. There was no open flank."

      You stubbornly refuse to pay attention to what I actually wrote:
      "no front lines above regimental-size level. The paras were free to manoeuvre on the island until they engaged the fortified bases."
      Don't tell me you cannot grasp the difference between a tactical-level field fortification and a theatre-level front line.

      "clear dense terrain such as urban or woodland to assist the armour"

      He didn't intend to use armour to clear Black Forest-sized woodland areas or capture cities. Again, you don't pay attention to what I write. Makes it look kinda pointless to repeat it, so please just scroll up.

      "I also think NATO is well fitted for infantry."

      NATO has plenty infantry compared to any semi-plausible threat - IF almost all mobilised forces are brought to bear almost at once. But the active forces balance is way off, and it's been acknowledged for decades. The German Heer has attempted to raise some Jäger Bns for years, for example.

      "I can live with a 3:5 armoured/infantry in a division. But I think once you go below that you're getting into rocky ground."

      The Wehrmacht had Panzer divisions down to 50 or less tanks still serving as offensive (QRF counterattack) formations in '44-'45. This experience left some impression, as one had learned that losses are much higher when you commit many tanks, even though success is usually not increased nearly as much. Similarly, fighter pilot experts recounted that in fighter/fighter combat small groups of fighter were more lethal than large groups (for they were more likely to achieve the deadly surprise effect).

      "the problem I have with truck borne infantry in an armoured division is that history has demonstrated repeatedly that once the weather deteriorates they become a liability"

      Then everything becomes a liability, for everything in an armoured division depends on trucks. There are a several thousand trucks in a modern division.
      A motorcycle or quad Bn has the traditional problem of cavalry; a substantial share of the troops needs to stay back and guard the vehicles during contact. Motorcycles and quads are also remarkably inefficient (or unsafe) during road marches, extending the convoy length (/duration of pass) very much and multiplying fuel consumption per man. Finally, sleep deprivation is an issue, and it's better if only one in a dozen men needs to be fully awake, with others effectively resting during a march or break.

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    11. "rather a political gambit"
      -- The Iraqi's really didn't have the competence to navigate across that stretch of open desert. They considered it impassable, which is partly why they put their weakest forces on that flank because they didn't conceive that they would be involved heavily.

      "You stubbornly refuse to pay attention to what I actually wrote:"
      Because your splitting hairs to avoid admitting you're wrong. There was not a huge force deployed to the Islands by either side, so grand front lines were impossible. The reality is there was a fixed line that required breaching (as much for political reasons as any other).

      "He didn't intend to use armour to clear Black Forest-sized woodland areas or capture cities."
      -- Who said anything about the Black Forest? They were needed to clear whatever obstacle was in the path, which based on the experience of WW1 was often extensive areas of woodlands, or large towns/cities that lay in the path of the advance.

      "NATO has plenty infantry compared to any semi-plausible threat - IF almost all mobilised forces are brought to bear almost at once."
      -- I think if the threat was of such a scale that it required this mass manpower then it would be mobilised. It's unlikely that we are suddenly going to need a million troops for something other than a major, major war.

      "The Wehrmacht had Panzer divisions down to 50 or less tanks still serving as offensive (QRF counterattack) formations in '44-'45."
      -- Protracted warfare under conditions of air inferiority will do that. A larger force has the advantage of still using a small frontage if required, but now with much greater armour reserve to support it and keep the attack flowing.

      "Similarly, fighter pilot experts recounted that in fighter/fighter combat small groups of fighter were more lethal than large groups (for they were more likely to achieve the deadly surprise effect)."
      -- It depends. We had a mixed experience in the BoB. Pairs of squadrons (one for the fighters, one for the bombers) had success and preserved strength, but routinely found themselves out numbered and overwhelmed by German fighters. The big wings on the other hand took a lot longer to form (frequently too long), but once they contacted the enemy the ability to repeatedly engage a German bomber stream in a cycle of flights caused tremendous damage.

      "Then everything becomes a liability, for everything in an armoured division depends on trucks. There are a several thousand trucks in a modern division."
      -- But at least you can still deploy your infantry and remove several trucks from the jam on the good roads.

      "A motorcycle or quad Bn has the traditional problem of cavalry; a substantial share of the troops needs to stay back and guard the vehicles during contact"
      -- One out of ten should be sufficient, probably get away with less. Which is like having the driver of a truck stay with the vehicle...

      I'd agree that sleep issues could be a concern, but motorcycles are normally very fuel efficient. I'd be interested whether 8 motorcycles combined consume more or less fuel than a large armoured vehicle like Mastiff.

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    12. "There was not a huge force deployed to the Islands by either side, so grand front lines were impossible."

      That's the point. It's the normal face of modern conventional warfare.

      "whether 8 motorcycles combined consume more or less fuel than a large armoured vehicle like Mastiff"

      There are much more fuel efficient vehicles available than MRAPs, particularly for a comparison with soft alternatives.

      The Kawassaki KLR 650 diesel version is the most efficient for the purpose and requires 2.5 L/100 km. A truck would thus only need to beat 22.5 L/100 km (eight dismounts and one guard/driver).
      Almost all two-ton trucks will beat this (and the Kawasaki would have difficulty hauling the equipment).

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    13. "That's the point. It's the normal face of modern conventional warfare".
      -- ? Just a decade later two armies totalling almost a million men between them faced off.

      "There are much more fuel efficient vehicles available than MRAPs"
      -- Trouble is most of them are unarmoured. At least if motorcycle hits an IED you're not going to lose 10 people like you might with an unarmoured truck.

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    14. "? Just a decade later two armies totalling almost a million men between them faced off. "

      Where, what?
      You don't really mean the Ukraine and Russia, do you?
      http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2014/05/force-densities-and-gaps-example-ukraine.html

      "Trouble is most of them are unarmoured. At least if motorcycle hits an IED you're not going to lose 10 people like you might with an unarmoured truck."

      The IED obsession will go away.
      Besides, you cannot armour up all support elements without ruining yourself through inefficient logistics. Many troops need to move with at most basic protection (spacing to front axle, bulletproof partial vertical armour). Light infantry that doesn't fight together with vehicles can ride with the same low protection rating as log support elements.
      And a vehicle for everyone is death by stupid logistics as well.

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    15. "Where, what? You don't really mean the Ukraine and Russia, do you?"
      -- We were talking about the Falklands Islands and you said that was the normal face of modern warfare. I was making the point that a decade later (GW1) there was over a million men facing off against one another. That's not likely to be a common occurrence, granted, but the potential for it to happen still resides.

      "The IED obsession will go away"
      -- I'm not convinced it will. We made this mistake before and it came back to haunt us recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Genie is out of the bottle now and everywhere western forces travel they find evidence of IED preparation. The French found a significant quantity of materials for making IEDs in Mali.

      That element of knowledge, that IEDs and mines can be used to delay casualty averse western forces, means that mines of all forms are likely to remain a feature of modern warfare for a long time to come.

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    16. I meant the inability to muster enough troops to create a World War-like continuous front line which allows no flanking without breakthrough - that's the normal face of war. The Iraqis were unable to create such a front-line outside of Kuwait, and so was the Coalition.
      The difference between a continuous front-line in the theatre or none is huge. It's what changed the face of war from 1914 till 1953.

      IEDs have been in existence for centuries, and even earlier there were man-made avalanches and floods et cetera. IEDs are merely one of a gazillion capabilities in a repertoire, and one will barely be motivated to pay attention to them once the opposing force isn't so very much dominated tactically that they have almost only IEDs left as active repertoire. I wrote about the repertoire thing on my blog and IIRC I used the IEDs as the example.

      Mines/IEDs are only worthwhile when the predictability of routes, the frequency of their use and the time available (in wait) as well as early warning create a perfect storm. IEDs wouldn't play much of a role if there would develop a full civil war in Eastern Ukraine, for example. There would still be some booby traps and some mines, but they wouldn't be prominent.

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    17. It's very rare that you ever get that continuous line. WW1 was really a blip in that regard. But it is fairly common to get more localised lines that anchor terrain features and restrict movement.

      Our own lessons have been that mines are a prime concern now. Whether it be conventional mines or IEDs, the reality is that every theatre we're likely to engage in over the next 50 years will be sown with the buggers. Thus they have to remain a key concern. We've learned the hard way in the UK I think to not discount this particular threat.

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    18. Back in the 30's people were sure the next great war would be about poison gas on cities, poison gas on troops, gas, gas, gas.

      http://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.de/2014/05/on-overly-impressed-peoples-errors.html

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    19. As we were certain that after Northern Ireland and Bosnia we had seen the back of mines and IEDs.....

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