Guest Post: On the Life of a Support Soldier

The description of Keeping the Lights on for Ike on the Sunbury Press website begins, “Most people don’t realize that during the war in Europe in the 1940s, it took an average of six support soldiers to make the work of four combat soldiers possible.” According to, there were two million American troops involved in the European Theater of Operations during WWII. John McGrath, in a study published by the Combat Studies Institute Press (The Other End of the Spear: The Tooth to Tail Ratio (TR3) in Modern Military Operations, 2011), writes that, of those two million, 39%, or 780,000 were combat troops, whose primary mission was to fight the enemy, including direct combat operations (infantry, armed cavalry, field and air defense artillery, and others) as well as direct combat support units (combat engineers, assault helicopter and anti tank units, and certain reconnaissance elements). The remaining 61% of those two million soldiers were considered support troops, which McGrath divides into two broad categories: Logistics/Life Support (900,000 soldiers) and HQ/Admin (320,000 soldiers).

Keeping the Lights on for Ike details the experiences of one support soldier during WWII. Alec Daniels was a utilities engineer assigned to Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ). His primary job was the maintenance of utilities infrastructure (sometimes damaged or destroyed by the retreating German army). His training was in electrical engineering and as an officer, he was “solely responsible for furnishing and maintaining the electrical power necessary for the operation of the complete headquarters” (from his Bronze Star commendation). There were thousands of other support soldiers at all levels in various locations throughout the European Theater, working behind the scenes to make Allied combat operations successful.

The Logistics support group included supply trains and maintenance for combat organizations (quartermaster, supply, service, maintenance, ordnance, ammunition support, adjutant general, transportation, medical, and small finance detachments). Types of units falling into this category included base command and support units, signal infrastructure units, engineering units with primary missions of infrastructure construction and support, finance offices, judge advocate general offices, labor service support units, base public information units, and contracting units. Medical units running facilities such as base dispensaries, which functioned separately from the operational medical support system, were also included in this category.

Life Support services would be provided by the troops who ran base camps and provided support separate from the conduct of operational missions, such as base construction and infrastructure (like the support Daniels provided at AFHQ in Algiers and Caserta), theater infrastructure, post newspapers and entertainment, food service, and more. In other words, they provided and maintained troop morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) facilities for all troops in their immediate area. These operations were not considered essential to the completion of the missions of the combat units, but that’s really just a matter of semantics because even if this work wasn’t considered “operationally essential” by the military organizations, it seems highly likely that MWR support was emotionally essential for any troops called up during wartime, and the troops who provided this support were just as important to the war effort as the combat troops themselves.

The smaller number of HQ/Admin support soldiers seems to be a subset of the Logistics and/or Life Support groups, and it seems that this is a category for managers, administrative assistants, accountants, secretaries, and others whose primary concern is to keep military headquarters functioning smoothly on an administrative level.

The one thing all support soldiers would have in common, regardless of rank, category, or function, would be working near (or sometimes inside) the combat zone but not being expected to do the fighting. Beyond that, there would be many different possible experiences, depending on the responsibilities each soldier been assigned. Daniels had the responsibility to keep the electricity functional at headquarters, others would have the responsibility for maintaining water service or other utilities, still others would feed all the headquarter personnel (imagine all the different functions of staffing and running a very large restaurant); others might be responsible for entertainment for the troops a long way from home; others would provide various day-to-day tasks we civilians take for granted: mail service, availability of shopping, access to communication, routine medical care, etc. 

Because I am primarily a theater practitioner by profession and training, I would liken this “tooth to tail” relationship in the military to the way in which a theater production involves both a visible component (onstage actors) and a relatively invisible one (rehearsal and/or backstage crew). It doesn’t seem to me to be accidental that we use the terminology “theater of war.” The Cambridge Dictionary Online defines a theater of war as “an area in which important military events occur or are progressing.” In WWII, the two main theaters were Europe and the Pacific, though there were many smaller divisions, called Theaters of Operations, defined primarily by the specific battle location and command structure.

To extend this analogy a little further, in the theater world, actors onstage are much more visible to the general public and often get most of the attention from audience and critics. However, for every production there is always a backstage crew—the size of which would be determined by the technical needs of the particular production and which sometimes outnumbers the onstage cast—whose job it is to make the work of the actors feasible and seamless while staying out of sight as much as possible.

The average Broadway musical for past 50 years usually involves between 25-30 actors onstage, occasionally more. To make that onstage performance happen, at least that many (and often more) will help behind the scenes (director, producer, choreographer, musical director, casting, stage management, sets, lights, costumes, props, sound, special effects, music, publicity/promotion, ticket sales, front of house staff, etc.).

Each job is distinct, sometimes done by individuals, often by teams, some done during the rehearsal/preparation period, some during the performance itself, some after each performance in preparation for the next, all in support of the primary mission: the onstage performance seen by the audience. 

That’s how it was for the support soldier. Though not focused directly on the performance of the combat mission, each soldier worked behind the scenes, sometimes alone and often in teams, to provide many different, discrete, and necessary requirements in support of the primary mission of the Allies during WWII in Europe: to defeat the enemy.

Photo 1: This is Alec and another utilities engineer, checking out the pipes of the local water or sewer system in Naples after the retreating Nazis left much of the city infrastructure in ruins.

Photo 2: Alec was frustrated at having much to do but without much help, other than his Italian crew. Though the requests he was getting for lighting help weren’t critical to the fighting itself, they kept him pretty busy, so perhaps that’s the reason for the tongue-in-cheek sign on his desk.

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