“Staff ride” in Normandy: learning from the past

For the first time, 40 students from the Master in International Security at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) took part in a “Normandy Student Staff Ride" as part of a class offered within the PSIA Master’s program.

A “staff ride”: learning from the past

The Normandy Student Staff Ride draws upon the instructional "staff ride" method originally developed by the German Army in the 19th century and today used by most Western militaries in training their senior leaders. The course instructs students in the fundamental aspects of international relations at times of crisis and war, and in the difficulties and realities of war as experienced at the level of senior leaders and their staff as well as by the soldiers, sailors, and airmen operating in the battle space. It also enables students to better comprehend the strategic planning of a military operation and its confrontation with reality.

An educationally innovative format

This innovative course blending theory and practice is led by General Vincent Desportes: retired three-star general, former military attaché at the French Embassy in the USA and Scientific Director of the Master in International Security at PSIA; and by Colonel Peter Herrly: retired U.S. Army colonel, expert in strategic leadership and organizational transformation, and a long-standing lecturer at Sciences Po and PSIA.

After a theoretical study of the formulation of strategy during World War II and a detailed exposition of the operational design of the Normandy Campaign of June 1944 (three two-hour sessions in the classroom with a group of advanced students in International Security at PSIA), the student group travelled to the principal sites of the Normandy landings where they encountered in situ the complexities and difficulties of the operations and how they were experienced by the participants.

Particular emphasis was placed on the challenges this warfare presented on a political level, the coordination of action between the various national authorities, and the unavoidable friction between the plans as conceived and their application. In terms of strategy, the Normandy Campaign is a pertinent case to study as it was one of the few "joint" battles that took place in WWII, combining naval, air and land operations.

On the ground, students delivered short group presentations which they had prepared in advance, detailing specific aspects of the Normandy Campaign such as logistics, resilience during the war, and the role played by aircraft. Peter Herrly provided students with a battle book he had compiled to aid their understanding of events, and which included the Supreme Allied Commander's original communiqué to his force, staff planning maps and analytical documents.

After returning from Normandy, a final classroom session enabled students to assimilate the lessons and insights gained on the ground during their encounter with the realities of war. As part of their assignments, students will also write their own analyses of the implementation of the strategy in the context of World War II.

This course is part of PSIA’s extensive offer in educationally innovative courses, including “Mapping Controversies”, “Simulation of Negotiations: Ukraine-Russia-European Union Relations”, “Simulation Workshop: the Iranian Case”, and "Planification et conduite d'une opération militaire: exercice Coalition", taught in collaboration with the Ecole de Guerre (the War College) in Paris and other institutions. More than 60% of courses at the Paris School of International Affairs use innovative formats and contents, offering students a different learning experience that reinforces the practical aspects of learning, providing greater insight into the professional world.

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