I got some mixed feelings about the classic war movies like ‘The Longest Day‘ or ‘A Bridge Too Far.‘ Sometimes they capture the spirit of the age in a way we don’t always manage in modern films, but other times they get uncomfortably sentimental or melodramatic (and in the case of wars featuring the Japanese, more than a bit racist).
The Longest Day (1962, 20th Century Fox) is at its best when it captures those little moments of bravery or humour, such as when the war correspondent (played by Canadian actor Charles Lynch) releases a pair of homing pigeons, only to curse in vain as they fly off in the wrong direction. The scene’s funny enough on its own, but gets funnier when you realize that Lynch (a real life Reuters war correspondent who landed with the Canadians at Juno) was essentially playing himself.
Some of the other artistic decisions made by the film are (at least in my opinion) a bit more questionable. One of these is the climactic scene on Omaha Beach in which a team of engineers blast a hole through the German defences. The leader of these engineers gives his name as John H. Fuller and when I first saw the film I figured he was a real person (especially given that they went so far as to give him a full name with middle initial). But in fact his character is completely fictional, intended to be a stand-in for the collective efforts of hundreds of engineers fighting on the Beach that day.
I got mixed feelings about this personally. I understand that sometimes this kind of economy is necessary for film making, but I’ve always felt that if you’re going to do this kind of amalgamation character, it should be as an ‘unknown soldier’ type who won’t be mistaken for an actual person.
This is a bit of a long-winded way for me to say that today we’re going to be looking at leadership again, and the scenes featuring John H. Fuller are a prime example of the wrong way to do things. So I’m kind of relieved that I’m not talking about an actual man.
So here’s how the scene breaks down:
The assault is underway at Omaha Beach, but the troops are jammed up against the German bunkers and fortifications that line the high ground. Brig-Gen Norman Cota tracks down an engineer detachment. When he discovers that all their officers have been killed, he field promotes one of the remaining NCOs – Sgt John H. Fuller – to Lieutenant and orders him to prepare to breech the wall with explosives and Bangalore Torpedoes.
The newly minted Lt gathers his men and their explosives as the General watches from a nearby sand dune.
The General then gives the signal!
Sgt/Lt Fuller races out with a team to plant them in the barbed wire at the base of one of the fortifications.
The Bangalores are shoved into the German barbed wire, and the team races back to cover.
The General gives another signal,
The Bangalores are triggered, and the wire is blasted to shreds, leaving the concrete bunker exposed.
Lt Fuller again leads his men forward, packing satchel charges into a hollow exposed beneath the bunker.
They race back, but this time Lt Fuller is tragically killed (because Hollywood), and an unnamed extra takes over.
He plugs in the command wire, and when the Gen gives this new man the nod and he triggers the charges.
A huge hole is blown in the German obstacles, saving the day for Omaha Beach.
As you can probably guess, there’s a bunch of problems with this scene, and it ties heavily into how Battle Procedure works in real life, and why you have to trust your subordinates.
So the big issue here is pretty obvious. The General is hunkered down behind a sand dune with a couple of his staff, looking for all the world like the three stooges, in plain sight on Omaha Beach. Even if this wasn’t in one of the established kill zones, a cluster of targets that obvious for that long runs a huge risk of drawing sniper fire.
The real problem though is why the General had to stick his head out. The scene seems to suggest that none of the soldiers around him will do their jobs until he tells them to.
This is a kind of behaviour normally only seen among deeply insecure officers. Nothing gets done until I say so, therefore I am the most important person here! The problem with this mindset should be obvious:
What happens when that inflated head of yours gets popped a bullet?
The realistic way to handle this situation (assuming everyone didn’t have radios) would be through delegation and timings. Get your Engineer commander, your Infantry commander, and whoever else is necessary for the assault. Figure out how much time everyone’s going to need to get their part of the picture ready to go. Then build your plan based on those timings.
The Engineer says he needs five minutes to get back to his troops and brief them, then ten more to set the charges. Okay good. The Infantry commander’s got men scattered all over the beach. Says he needs twenty minutes to pull enough men together to rush the breach and clear out the bunkers on either side. Another ten minutes to brief the platoon commanders. Right. Time is now 12:03, can we blow the obstacle at 12:35 and assault the bunkers immediately after?
Your commanders say yes? Then that’s the plan. You’ll be located here (at some convenient central location), if there’s any problems. If you need a five minute delay, here’s how you’ll signal your counterparts so that no one gets caught by surprise.
As much as we may feel that human need to watch everything go down, the ultimate goal of leadership is to make a plan that will make you (the leader) redundant. With a simple plan like this in motion, the General could die minutes later and the assault will still go in as planned. The sooner his two commanders get back to their people and start briefing their people, the sooner they become redundant as well.
At any moment you could end up dead. If the plan fails because of it, you done fucked up.
This brings us to the three acronyms in this post’s title. NTM (Notice To Move), NMB (No Move Before), and NLT (No Later Than). These are not the be-all & end-all in the realm of military timings, but the explaining them goes a long way to understanding how we use time to get multiple teams working together without you looking over their shoulder.
Notice To Move:
NTM essentially an estimate of how quickly a given task is likely to come up for your subordinates, and how much time they are likely to have to get ready. So if you’re told “You’re on six hours’ notice to move,” that means if the order were to come through right now, you have to be able to get out that door, fully prepared, in no more than six hours.
For large, professional militaries, NTM is vital in order to keep the troops and equipment at peak readiness without burning anyone (or anything) out. If you’re at say, 48 hrs NTM, you can afford to let troops stand down for a night and go back to barracks/home. Vehicles and equipment that may need maintenance can be sent for repairs, and while the techs may be working late, you probably don’t need to be worried about getting caught in an emergency with a key vehicle still up on the lift.
On the other hand, if you’re on 15 minutes NTM, your troops are probably sitting around in full fighting order, with the vehicles running and prepared to roll out. In a situation like that, you’re wearing your gear when you go to the bathroom, and if a vehicle develops an unsettling rattle, well…you just gotta hope for the best.
Some of the scarier stories I’ve heard in this regard come from back in the Cold War when the troops of the Canadian Brigade in West Germany were under a perpetually tight NTM. If the alarm went up, they had to be at their designated assembly area within (X) amount of time.
The thing was, since WW III could start at any time, the tendency was to never tell the soldiers whether or not the mobilization order was yet another exercise, or the real thing. So, on any occasion, when the order was given, the soldiers on the ground never knew if this was a real war or not. This was reflected in the way the Brigade would roll out: If a particular vehicle (especially tanks and APCs that took special training to drive) didn’t have its driver, then anyone else qualified would climb in and drive it. The hope being that the actual driver would catch up later. If no driver could be found, it would be towed out to the assembly area where (hopefully) a driver could be located.
A key point about NTM is that you (as the leader) don’t necessarily know exactly how much time your guys will need to get ready. You can’t always track the details of readiness. In fact, you shouldn’t. That’s your subordinate’s job and you got no business micro-managing them. Instead, you give them a NTM and trust them to warn you if they can’t meet it for some reason.
This leads us too…
No Move Before:
In simple terms, NMB is the answer to that age old question asked by civilians and soldier alike: Do I got time to go to the bathroom?
On a more realistic level, NMB is a hard timing passed on to subordinates which provides a set timing before which they would not have to take action. Basically, whatever your Notice To Move may be, if NMB is set for 0900, then you at least know that you won’t have to roll out before nine a.m. tomorrow.
This doesn’t seem like a huge issue, until you consider the fact that some damn thing always goes wrong. Or more specifically, there’s always a problem that needs to get sorted out in the last minute. NMB serves to create a working space for your subordinates, allowing them room to prepare themselves for whatever mission you’ve given them.
More specifically, NMB is an acknowledgement that (as the leader) you don’t know enough of what’s happening down the food chain to be able to enforce a perfect schedule. No matter how aware you think you are, some things are always going to be outside your ability to anticipate or control, so you provide a generic timing to allow the people with greater knowledge to plan and prepare accordingly.
***As a little side point: Junior leadership courses in the CAF usually include things like ‘small party tasks,’ where you need to organize a section’s worth of troops to accomplish a particular job like say, setting up a decontamination area or a camouflaged vehicle harbour. As part of the assessment, you are graded by how coherent your orders are, and whether you issued such things as a NMB timing.
While this is good in principle, in practice it sometimes has the effect of making NMB seem like an arbitrary thing that you issue then forget about. That’s not the way to do it. NMB has to be real and it has to be something that gets enforced. For all the young Master-Jacks out there: Don’t issue a No Move Before timing unless you are almost certain that you can guarantee it. There’s something especially frustrating about hearing ‘Prepare to move!’ just as you sat down on the toilet.***
No Later Than:
Simple version: In movies, there’s the notion that military operations happen on split-second coordination. In real life there always a margin of error. That margin is No Later Than.
There’s a bunch of movies where commando raids happen, and it’s always demarcated by exact split second timings. In movies, there’s often the tendency to portray military operations (especially spec-ops type missions) as a kind of Rube Goldberg machine where nothing can work without absolute perfect timing. In real life, planning your operation on such perfect timings is doomed to fail, and that failure is going to be measured in body bags.
To make things work in the world we live in, you need a fudge factor, a marine of error to compensate for those unforeseen circumstances that can rise up to kneecap an otherwise perfect plan. That margin of error is called No Later Than.
NLT creates a range between now and X in which you must complete your mission. If you an get it done earlier, great!, it’s time to celebrate. If you just barely manage to hit the timing, still great!, you met the bare minimum and so the larger operation can go forward. It’s only when you’re at risk of missing NLT that things become a problem.
Are we starting to see a theme here? That’s right, it’s trust. You need to trust your subordinates. You can try to force a split second schedule onto your people, and maybe they’ll manage to nail it. In the real world however, you’re better off setting some basic parameters and giving your people the flexibility they need to get things done.
Some Concluding Thoughts…
The frustrating part about ‘The Longest Day’ is that, up until the engineer assault, the scenes on Omaha were at least aiming for a fairly realistic depiction of organization and leadership. Although portrayed with a heavy dose of melodrama, the scenes where BGen Norman Cota struggles to pull the Omaha Beach assault back together are actually pretty good.
With heavy casualties having decimated his chain of command, he tracks down someone…anyone…who can lead and promotes them into command. He combines decimated units into new, composite forces. He orders lightly wounded soldiers (and healthy ones hiding among the wounded) to re-arm themselves and prepare to join in. He lays out a basic, straightforward plan then takes up a position near a wrecked jeep so his newly minted commanders can check in with him as the plan develops.
This is where he should have stayed. BGen Cota used his rank and force of personality to knit together an impromptu assault force and set out the plan. With that done, he should have hunkered down by his jeep and allowed his people to get on with their jobs. Instead he leaves his well-sited command post to supervise the engineers during their assault, which is where this rant began.
The basic lesson that underlies how timings are passed on is that a major part of leadership (especially high level leadership) is to create the space for your subordinates to work in. Not to micromanage their every move. That means you have to be able to trust your people, and they have to be able to trust you.
How you get to that trust…well that’s a journey unto itself.
Okay, this last point didn’t occur to me until after I started collecting still frames for this article, and it doesn’t fit into the flow of the post itself, so I’m throwing it in here:
I’ve seen this face before.
If you see your troops giving you a look like this during exercises, then you still got some work to do. If your troops are looking at you when they should be focusing on their jobs, then you’re only half done with training.
So it’s a common cliché that basic training is meant to ‘break you down, then build you back up as a soldier,’ but it’s actually fairly accurate. Civilians do not have the right mindset for the army, and a huge part of basic training is breaking down this mindset and rebuilding in the army mould. The thing is, it’s possible to go too far in this breaking down process, and not far enough in the rebuilding.
Part of the thing is, civvies not only have un-military ideas, but they tend to be pretty independent as well. That’s a problem. The last thing you want in an army is a bunch of armed individuals coming up with their own ideas and putting them into practice on their own. But once civvies become soldiers and they’ve developed a healthy mindset, they need a fair bit of independence and freedom in the way they obey your orders.
If your troops have progressed past the point of being judged by how well they make their beds or shine their boots, then they shouldn’t be looking at you with child-like sense of worship when you’ve given them an order.
I’m saying this as somebody who’s had this happen many times before and never had it explained by someone else. I had to figure this shit out on my own, so I’m telling it you now. You want your troops to be looking at their job, not at you. On the defensive, they need to be watching their arcs and firing at the enemy. On the attack…they still need to be watching their arcs and firing at the enemy. If you’ve trained them right and given them effective orders, you shouldn’t be seeing more than the back of their heads. If you can see their faces, it’s because they can’t do what they were trained to without your permission and approval.
So yeah…fix that….
***All images taken by the author from the DVD release.***
 Interestingly enough, Google tells me that there was a John Fuller serving in the Pacific who was awarded the Silver Star for bravery.
 A Bangalore torpedo is basically a steel pipe packed full of explosives, with some form of initiator at one end. When triggered, the blast travels outwards in all directions and forward from the point of initiation, making it excellent for ripping apart wire obstacles.
 This tends to lead to the even unhealthier conclusion ‘If I tell people what the plan is, then they can do it without me and I’ll be useless!’ Don’t go there. That way leads to madness.
 Since the bases NATO forces operated out of were well-known to the Warsaw Pact forces, it could be assumed that these locations would be subject to immediate attack upon the commencement of hostilities. So in the event of a stand-to order (for Canada, the code word was SNOWBALL-natch), these bases had to empty themselves out as quickly as possible.
 I’ve heard of some occasions where the vehicles in question were being repaired, and they were nevertheless dragged out with the rest. In some cases, the Vehicle Techs themselves would still be inside, working frantically to get the damned things running just in case this time turned out to be the real one.
 And in case you’re wondering yes, bathroom breaks are important. No seriously, everyone’s gotta take a shit at some point, and no one wants to go when they’re in potential contact with the enemy.
 There’s still the problem that the jeep is potentially an attractive target to the Germans, but that gets offset by the fact that BGen Cota will be easier to find, and so can better coordinate his subordinates. When you’re trying to stitch a plan together on the fly, sometimes you have to make compromises.
 Because heaven forbid that in an ensemble movie that had originally planned to cast Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower as himself, you allow the generals step back and let the Lieutenants do their jobs. Also, Gen Eisenhower apparently walked out of an advance screening of the movie.
 I wrote that as a joke, then realized it was true. I’m not sure whether to be delighted or depressed.