On Twitter I came across a popular historian’s hot take regarding the correct approach to identifying Corps in publications, claiming that the reason why historians use Roman numerals is due to historic precedent and Corps always having been numbered in this way.
As a general rule, as this article will demonstrate, this is wrong. As a specific rule, for WW2, it is also wrong. Different armies did it differently, and post-war, but not immediately so, the standard of Roman numerals emerged across armies, driven by NATO usage, but also because it does make sense in most cases. It clearly has something to recommend itself, particularly when writing a large and complex history of a major campaign, such as the Russo-German war, where individual divisions almost don’t matter. But that also doesn’t make it a universal requirement, and it is important to note that rather than helping the reader, such standardization can confuse them in rare cases.
It is also important to note at this stage that it’s up to every author to do as they please or as their publisher/academic guidelines require. What I have an issue with is any claim that only Roman numerals are right, and the implication that anyone not doing it that way is doing it wrong.
The British Army
The historical case is quite clear here, thanks to Jonathan Prince on Twitter. In World War 2, British Corps were numbered in Arabic numerals. The rules for this are contained in the British Army’s Field Service Pocket Book No.2 (FSPB 2). The 1941 edition of this book can be found on the most excellent Vickers MG site at this link. There was a difference depending on the medium – a report or a message, for example.
Field Service Pocket Book No. 2, 1944 edition. Via Twitter Richard Fisher @vickersmg
It is this style that our books will follow, even though, as you will note from the examples below, it wasn’t universally followed at the time.
- Reports: written out (Eighth Army)
- Messages: 8th Army
- Report: 13th Corps
- Messages: 13 Corps
- Division (as Corps)
- Brigades (as Corps)
- Numbers as Corps
- Names as in FSPB 2, abbreviated after first mention
- In messages, abbreviations as in FSPB 2.
The end result would be:
- Long version: Right Flank Company, 2nd Scots Guards, 20th Guards Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, 13th Corps, Eighth Army
- Short version: RF Company, 2 SG, 20 Gds Brig, 7 Armd Div, 13 Corps, 8th Army.
The Western Desert and Axis Corps
When writing about the Western Desert in 1941, there is another issue in the form of potential for confusion with the Axis corps. During the period of Operation CRUSADER, there were up to four Axis Corps in action, three Italian, and one German. The Italian corps used a mix of Roman numerals (of course) and names, while the German corps used a name.
- X Corpo Armata (10th Army Corps), abbreviated X C.A.
- XXI Corpo Armata (21st Army Corps), abbreviated XXI C.A.
- XX Corpo Armata di Manovra (20th Mobile Corps), abbreviated C.A.M.
- Deutsches Afrika-Korps (German Africa Corps, abbreviated D.A.K.)
So the issue I encounter with using XIII Corps and XXX Corps for the British, to follow modern convention, rather than 13 Corps and 30 Corps is that in the Western Desert, it is not helping, but rather adding to the confusion. The correct usage at the time was 13 and 30 for the two Empire Corps, and using Arabic numerals today clearly distinguishes them from both the Italian, and the German Corps. Again, it is important to note that this is not the case in other theatres.
Furthermore, there is no potential for confusing them with divisions, since neither the British 13th, nor the 30th Division served in the Western Desert.
And yes, I know I said there is no right or wrong way, but this still jars, because it is ahistoric. Helion Books via Twitter.
To anyone who has spent time looking at primary documents, it is clear that ‘historical precedent’ cannot refer to either usage during the war, or indeed post-war useage in all Official Histories (the Australian Official History is using Roman numerals for British corps). It must refer to usage which crept in with increasing standardization due to NATO language, is my guess. That in my view makes it an anachronism. It is a defensible one in many cases, but it doesn’t appear so when writing about the Western Desert, where all that can be said for it is that it follows a style guide that is aligned with NATO. It looks odd, if not wrong, and there really isn’t a historic reason to use it.
The below examples are from our collection, or have been taken from Twitter posts or the official histories, in which case the origin is identified. They clearly demonstrate that the weight of historical precedent is on the side of Arabic numerals for British Corps, throughout the war and into the immediate post-war period up until the creation of NATO.
Contemporary Message header, from Eighth Army to various recipients, 22 November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
1942 report on operations on the Libyan/Egyptian border to reduce Bardia and Halfaya, 30 Corps. Note that while this is a report, and should presumably use “30th”, it doesn’t do so. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
Eighth Army operation order No. 23, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
December 1942 map of deception arrangements, El Alamein. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
Contemporary diagram of signals arrangements for counter-battery, 30 Corps, El Alamein. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
Particular of contemporary situation map, El Alamein 1942. Rommelsriposte.com collection.
Situation Map, January 1945. Note use of Roman numerals for US XIII Corps. UK 8 Corps in the upper left corner. Via Twitter – Gareth Davies
UK Official History
New Zealand Official History, NZETC.
Operational Account Covers, 1945 or later, via Twitter, Alan Pollock
Operation Order, Operations Varsity and Plunder, 1945. Via Twitter, Alex Collins
While I generally agree with this excellent article, I believe that the ‘Short version’ in your example should also abbreviate the unit type, resulting in the following format:
Short version: RF Coy, 2 SG, 20 Gds Bde, 7 Armd Div, 13 Corps, Eighth Army.
You are quite right Michel and I will fix that.