RERUN–A Neglected but Significant Anniversary

‘When the crocus blossoms,’ hiss the women in Berlin,
‘He will press the button, and the battle will begin.
When the crocus blossoms, up the German knights will go,
And flame and fume and filthiness will terminate the foe…
When the crocus blossoms, not a neutral will remain.’

(A P Herbert, Spring Song, quoted in To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne)

On May 10, 1940, German forces launched an attack against Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Few people among the Allies imagined that France would collapse in only six weeks: Churchill, for example, had a high opinion of the fighting qualities of the French army. But collapse is what happened, of course, and we are still all living with the consequences. General Andre Beaufre, who in 1940 was a young Captain on the French staff, wrote in 1967:

The collapse of the French Army is the most important event of the twentieth century.


If it’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. If France had held up to the German assault as effectively as it was expected to do, World War II would probably have never reached the nightmare levels that it in fact did reach. The Hitler regime might well have fallen. The Holocaust would never have happened. Most likely, there would have been no Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.

This campaign has never received much attention in America; it tends to be regarded as something that happened before the “real” war started. Indeed, many denizens of the Anglosphere seem to believe that the French basically gave up without a fight–which is a considerable exaggeration given the French casualties of around 90,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. But I think the fall of France deserves serious study, and that some of the root causes of the defeat are scarily relevant to today’s world.

First, I will very briefly summarize the campaign from a military standpoint, and will then shift focus to the social and political factors involved in the defeat.

France’s border can be thought of in terms of three sectors. In the north, the border with with Belgium. Early French military planning had been based on the idea of a strong cooperative relationship with Belgium: however, in the years immediately prior to 1940, that country had adopted a position of neutrality and had refused to do any joint military planning with France. In the south, the border was protected by the forts of the Maginot Line (the southern flank of which was anchored by mountainous territory bordering on Switzerland and Italy.) In between these regions was the country of the Ardennes. It was heavily wooded and with few roads, and the French high command did not believe it was a feasible attack route for strong forces–hence, the Maginot Line had not been extended to cover it, and the border here was protected only with field fortifications.

The French plans was based on the assumption that the main German attack would come through Belgium. Following the expected request from the Belgian government for assistance, strong French forces were to advance into that country and counterattack the Germans. In the Maginot and Ardennes sectors, holding actions only were envisaged. While the troops manning the Maginot were of high quality, the Ardennes forces included a large proportion of middle-aged reservists, and had been designated as lower-class units.

The opening moves seemed to fit expectations. The Germans launched a powerful attack through Belgium, and the Belgian government made the expected requests for help. Andre Beaufre:

Doumenc sent me at once to Vincennes to report to General Gamelin (the French supreme commander). I arrived at 6.30 AM at the moment when the order had just been given for the huge machine to go into operation: the advance into Belgium. Gamelin was striding up and down the corridor in his fort, humming, with a pleased and martial air which I had never seen before. It has been said since that he expected defeat, but I could see no evidence of it at the time.

There was heavy fighting in Belgium…but the German attack on this country had served to mask their real point of maximum effort. Early in the morning of the 13th, it became clear that massive German forces were moving through the Ardennes, which had turned out to not be so impassable after all. A massive German air attack paved the way for a crossing of the Meuse river and the capture of the town of Sedan. French officers were stunned by the speed of the German advance–they had expected delays while the Germans brought up heavy artillery, not understanding that dive bombers could play a role similar to that traditionally played by artillery. And the bombing was psychologically-shattering, especially for inexperienced troops. The famous historian Marc Bloch had been exposed to many artillery barrages while fighting in the First World War: in reflecting on his service in 1940, he observed that he found aerial bombing much more frightening even though it was, objectively, probably less dangerous. (Bloch later joined the Resistance and was captured by the Germans and shot.)

The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan. Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk. On June 14, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned. He was succeeded by Philippe Petain, a hero of the First World War, who immediately sought terms with the Germans. The “armistice”–basically a surrender–was signed on June 20. By Hitler’s order, it was signed in the same railway car where the armistice of 1918 had been signed. Hitler was present in person for the ceremony: William Shirer was fifty yards away, and was studying his expression through binoculars: It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.

Many military factors were involved in the defeat–obsolete doctrine on armored forces, inadequate use of radio communications, a strange and cumbersome military organization structure. But the roots of the 1940 debacle are not to be found only–or perhaps even primarily–in strictly military matters. A major role was played by certain characteristics of French society and politics of the time–and some of these factors are spookily similar to some of the things that are going on in America today.

In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir reflects on the attitude of the French Left (of which she was a part) toward the rise of Nazi Germany…”there was no threat to peace; the only danger was the panic that the Right was attempting to spread in France with the aim of dragging us into war.” (Horne) A constant thread that runs through France in the 1930s is the extreme factionalism, often resulting in more fear and distrust of other Frenchmen than of the rising external enemy.

This was not only a phenomenon of the Left. Among conservative elites, for example, the phrase Better Hitler than Blum was popular. Leon Blum (Premier 1936-37) was a fairly mild Socialist, best known for his advocacy of the 5-day week. Something about him inspired crazed hatred on the part of French Conservatives and Rightists. “A man to shoot in the back,” wrote Charles Maurras, and he was by no means alone in such sentiments. As Julian Jackson puts it in his book The Fall of France: “Politics in France in the 1930s had reached a pitch of violence that had something of the atmosphere of civil war.”

Leon Blum and George W Bush are, of course, two very different men, believing in very different kinds of things. But it is hard not to hear an echo of the insane Blum-hatred of the late 1930s in the insane Bush-hatred of today.

Nor did the factionalism stop on May 10, 1940. Georges Mandel, the courageous Minister of the Interior, observed a Deputy (legislator) whose district had been bombed by the enemy…he went about the lobbies (of the Chamber of Deputies), screaming “I will interpellate the government on this outrage as soon as the Chamber meets!”Mandel remarked to his friend, the English General Edward Spears, about the disconnect of this behavior from reality. “Paris is bombed by the Germans? Let’s shake our fists at our own Government.”

It is virtually impossible to win a war when politics is being conducted in such a manner…when the “enemy” across the aisle is hated more than the enemy in the bombers overhead. And, again, it is hard not to hear the echo of that Deputy of 1940 in the way that every reverse in Iraq or Afghanistan is used as a platform for vicious attacks on President Bush.

The tendency to view everything through the lens of domestic politics certainly had a malign influence on French military preparedness. Consider, for example, the matter of aircraft production. When the aggressive Guy La Chambre took over as Air Minister (in January 1938), he reputedly “found nothing but a disheartened industry of small workshops of which only one factory alone was equipped for mass production. As war approached and the production gap with the Luftwaffe appeared hopelessly wide, he tried to fill it by means of large-scale purchases from the United States; but even this measure of desperation met with intense opposition from the French aircraft manufacturers lobby.” (Horne) At roughly the same time, the Left was objecting to the restoration of a longer work week in order to increase armaments production. (In the event, some aircraft orders were placed in the US, but not nearly on the scale needed, and the work week was lengthened, but not without an epidemic of disruptive strikes.)

The 1930s were a time of frequent financial/political scandals. The most famous of these was the Stavisky affair: Serge Alexander Stavisky was able to sell bonds worth 200 million francs based on the assets of Bayonne’s municipal pawnshop. His political connections assisted him both in pulling off the scam and in getting his trial postponed 19 times. The result was a considerable weakening of confidence in France’s governing institutions.

There was rising xenophobia and anti-Semitism. With onset of the Depression (which came later in France than in the US and Britain), immigrants were viewed as competitors for jobs (even though France was in a demographic crisis, with both a low birth rate and the effects of the horrendous casualties of 1914-1918), and became targets of violence. France was faced with half a million refugees from Spain following Franco’s defeat of Republican forces in that country, and there were also refugees from other Nazi and Fascist countries. (Despite the xenophobia, “it must be said that France was more generous in providing asylum than any other European country or than the United States.” (Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley))

In the period just before Munich, fears of war were very strong, and many people chose to blame the Czechs…and the Jews. In Paris, Strasbourg, Dijon and elsewhere mobs attacked Jews and looted their shops, shouting: “Down with the Jewish war.” (Brendon)

By 1939, many Frenchmen had had enough of Hitler’s threats, and support for resistance against further aggression was growing…but there were still strong voices for appeasement. And these was a pervasive sense that something was deeply wrong with French society. Jean Renoir’s film La Regle du Jeu, opened in July 1939 but banned as “too demoralizing” by September, portrayed, in Brendon’s words, “a corrupt and disintegrating society held together only by deception. ‘We live at a time when everyone lies,’ says one of the characters, ‘drug ads, governments, radio, movies, newspaper.’”

The most splendid Parisian ball of the 1939 season took place on a warm July night at the Polish embassy. Brendon describes the scene:

Ministers and diplomats sipped champagne while an orchestra played and beautiful women in frothy gowns waltzed with military officers. “In the gardens white marble sphinxes gleamed beneath the stars…and pots of red fire threw on the scene the glow of a conflagration.’ The polish Ambassador, Julius Lukasziewicz, believed that Bonnet was “definitely seeking some legally valid escape” from French obligations, news of which accounted for increased “blustering” in Berlin. The shadows quivered. All thought war imminent and some were reminded of the ball “given by Wellington on the eve of Waterloo.” Watching a mazurka, Reynaud (who became Prime Minister just before the attack of 1940-ed) remarked: “it is scarcely enough to say that they are dancing on a volcano. For what is an eruption of Vesuvius compared to the cataclysm which is forming under our feet?”


33 thoughts on “RERUN–A Neglected but Significant Anniversary”

  1. Excellent work.
    It looks like the French war preparations were designed to fight WWI.
    And the Luftwaffe terror bombing techniques were practiced and perfected in the Spanish Civil War, so they shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone looking.
    The old saying goes history doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme.

  2. The tendency to view everything through the lens of domestic politics certainly had a malign influence on French military preparedness.

    Benghazi. Boston Bombers. Whatever the facts are or turn out to be, they are considered first for their effect on domestic politics; worse, the developing facts are applied to pre-existing political assumptions and postures that may or may not help illuminate what happened and why. People have a hard time making any kind of sense about the Boston Bombers without resorting to nonsense explanations.

    Debate is a closed system; any information not already meaningful in the context of that debate gets ignored.

    It effects way more than military preparedness; it hinders people’s ability to know and understand what is happening in their world. Everything is a surprise – inexplicable events; unexpected results; unforeseen consequences.

    The tendency’s always there, but it does seem pronounced these days.

  3. “It is virtually impossible to win a war when politics is being conducted in such a manner…when the “enemy” across the aisle is hated more than the enemy in the bombers overhead.”

    Chillingly apt – I often have the sense that the Vile Proggs despise and hate the Tea Party types, NRA members and the white working class with a white-hot burning passion … and give hardly any attention at all to the Islamofascists … who realy are our enemnies.

  4. Regarding the Ardennes thrust of German invasion of France in 1940, the French weren’t totally out of line discounting the risk of invasion there. It was a hard route. As it was the Germans didn’t find it easy to move the panzer divisions through. There were epic miles-long traffic jams with armor and vehicles packed nose-to-bumper, stalled for hours on end and in clear, sunny weather. An aerial assault could have destroyed the panzers on the roads. But apparently the French didn’t notice.

    The Germans won that fight with superior tactics and sheer nerve. On Paper the French were equal or superior, even in the quality of most tanks available to the Wehrmacht at that time.

  5. @Sgt Mom – good point.

    I am currently reading a book on nth rise of Hitler in Germany – as seen though the eyes of the Dodd family. Dodd was made ambassador to Germany – 1933 – and was pretty much a choice by elimination – nobody wanted the job.

    And this book is described as a “historical novel” (whatever that is) – leading one to wonder what is real and what isn’t.

    Still, given the times, the West thought that Hitler would be overthrown – that they were, in Dodd’s description, a bunch of “16 year olds”.

    He was always underestimated – even by vice-chancellor Fritz von Papen who thought he could be controlled.

    On the French campaign – this was the idea of one general who got Hitler’s attention – a bit of Googling in the morning and I have failed to find the name – but the campaign was originally going to be waged in the manner everyone thought.

    But for that general who knows what today would have been?

    The French had the Maginot Line, the Germans the Sigfried Line. I have a photo of a remnant of the Sigfried Line here

  6. Erich von Manstein was the German general’s name. Probably the smartest product ever turned out by the German General Staff. Outspoken, opinionated, he made enemies throughout his career and never achieved the rank he deserved and Germany desperately needed. He even told off Hitler, I believe.
    By late 1942-early 1943 many German generals wanted him placed in overall command of the entire eastern front. It’s an odd notion, but Germany never had an over-all strategy at any time prior, or during, WW2. Manstein had what the Germans call “fingergespitzenfuhl” (sp?), an instinct that allowed him to see things that intel could not provide. That, and a talent for ‘operations’, that ill-defined region between strategy and tactics.
    “The French command never really recovered from the unexpected thrust through the Ardennes and the fall of Sedan.”
    That quote tells the story. There has never really been a ‘France’ since 1789, just a bunch of excitable, squabbling gallic egos. If not family, there was philosophy. Not that there was much of one before then. It took a Louis XIV to put some definition to it-“The state is me.” Every Louis that followed tried and failed to re-create his success.

  7. Cris – you get the gold star.

    On the background of the decision by Hitler to adopt von Manstein’s plan – if I remember history right he really came out of left field – ignored by most of the Generals he managed to get Hitler’s ear.

    Imagine if Hitler had decided to finish off Britain before turning east – the Soviets were placated with half of Poland –

    … or if the German’s hadn’t halted for 3 days allowing the British to evacuate Dunkirk…

  8. Andre Beaufre made an interesting remark about what he observed when he first joined the French General Staff:

    “I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.”

    This describes many American bureaucracies today, with “forms of drafting” usually taking the form of the expected PowerPoint style and format. Far too much of our society is dominated by what I call The Word People, whose primary expertise is manipulating language, in constructing verbal formulations along the approved patterns. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor–an aspiring novelist with no apparent background in foreign policy or military matters–would seem to provide an excellent example of the species.

  9. France suffered enormous losses in WWI. If you drive thru small towns in France today you can see memorials which list hundreds of dead from WWI and only a few from WWII. Many boys were too young to fight in 1941. Later they joined the resistance. In 1941 France had boy-power but very little man-power.

    The Communist International Party was still looking to build a europe wide revolution and had no desire to fight for just one country. They would fight for international socialism. They won big at Yalta.

    The French nobility still dominated the French military. To be sure their ancestors fought bravely 1000 years ago, but the noble children of 1941 were trained to make love, not war. These guys planned to ride horses into battle in 1941 wearing a lover’s token!

    The Maginot line was a string of fortresses designed to resist the gas attacks of WWI and the massive artilery of WWI. The Germans used fast moving tanks, fast moving trucks (not horses) to pull their artillery, fast trucks to move infantry (no more walking!), fast trucks, boats and trains to move supplies (no foraging). They drove past the forts without stopping to fight. France was invaded and conquered before the French officers had finished dancing and before they could ride their horses to the front.

    The English were routed at Dunkirk. They lost a lot of horses. Their ‘tanks’ had too thin armor. England would have fallen as fast as France if the Germans had a navy that could beat the British Navy and get them across the channel.

    None of this was a surprise to Eisenhower or Patton who wrote articles about motorized warfare in the 1930s. But Ike and Patton were not in charge.

    Europe fell because their leaders saw the world thru rose colored (pink) glasses. So does Obama.

    You cannot see the truth if you believe it cannot happen or if you believe in the song ‘Imagine’.

  10. Re the losses in WWI…Beaufre wrote about a memorial wall at the French military academy he attended in the period between WWI and WWII. The wall had the names of the members of each graduating class who had died in France’s wars. For the class of 1914, there were no names.

    The wall said, simply, “The Class of 1914”

    Re motorization and horses…actually, the German army made heavy use of horse-drawn artillery. The was a relatively small spearhead of completely motorized units, both armored units and mechanized infantry units…behind that were a large number of horse-intensive units.

  11. Re Germany’s Mechanized units –

    A while back I read the personal memoir of a young German Wehrmacht officer, Siegfried Knappe, attached to an artillery battalion involved in (among other things) the invasion of France. IIRC his unit entered France in the immediate wake of the panzer thrust through the Ardennes. His unit (and regiment) was strictly horse-drawn.

    He hadn’t intended a military career, but on finishing his primary education he was subject to two years of compulsory military service. When he learned he was assigned to an artillery unit, he assumed it was fully mechanized and modern, because the government propaganda allowed him to believe that the Wehrmacht had become a primarily motorized outfit. He was terribly let down when he discovered that not only would he have to learn all about drill and artillery, but how to handle horses, groom them, rig and care for the tack etc.

    His unit didn’t become motorized until Mussolini’s government fell, and the Germans essentially seized the Italian armory. His unit was in Italy at the time, so they helped themselves to the vehicles of a mechanized Italian unit!!

  12. The military academy was Saint-Cyr. I recollect reading in Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” the class of 1914 all were dead in the first months of the war. I’ll back up David and T.K., with regard to the German army and horsepower – only a relatively small portion of the German army was mechanized, but their propaganda was so overwhelming that practically everyone in Germany and elsewhere believed it was entirely mechanized.

    For a wonderful, evocative book about the WWI front, I must recommend Gene Smith’s “Still Quiet On the Western Front.” He went back, fifty years later, in 1964 and followed the line of it from south to north, from Belfort to Ypres. The writing is fantastic, although it is a short book – and he took many pictures in 1964 from the same place that many wartime pictures were taken, so there is a poignant ‘then and now’ comparison. Of course, now it is fifty years later than his trip… I can’t recommend it enough.

  13. }}} Fingerspitzengefühl

    LOL. Second time I’ve seen that word this week. Odd how that happens, innit? Once in a book I’m reading, and here, too, not like the two could have both encountered it and used it by simple human nature.

  14. }}} – the Soviets were placated with half of Poland –

    As I understand it, not exactly — Stalin was already planning to bite Hitler in the ass… but he wasn’t in any hurry to do it… and really, really believed that Hitler would NEVER do such a thing to HIM.

    But I do concur, the history would have been different in… interesting ways… had Hitler not bit off more than he could chew.

    Part of that seems to be a kind of myopia on the part of Europeans about how BIG the geography gets outside of Europe. Napoleon made the same mistake, really — both Hitler and Nappy failed to grasp just HOW far it is from Paris/Berlin to Moscow. They knew but … “not really”.

    I’ve seen the same kind of thing in chat rooms with sneering euros commenting on how “Many Americans don’t even have a passport”, as though America was no bigger than France or Germany, and did not have pretty much every nationality grouping (and then some) to match any enclave in Europe, as well as any geographical feature (mountains, lakes, rivers, plains, etc.) to match Europe, too… That’s not to suggest international travel isn’t educational and good — but never leaving the USA is hardly the same limiting experience as never leaving France or Germany.

  15. >>> or if you believe in the song ‘Imagine’.

    I believe in the song, “Imagine”…

    I believe it describes, in no uncertain terms, a distinctly evil version of Hell.

    True Hell, not the fire and brimstone one, but the kind of Hell man is truly made to suffer in — one where everything is boring and there is nothing of any value at all.


    Nothing to kill or die for
    No children.
    No family.
    No significant other.
    No one you CARE about enough to kill or die to protect.

    And no religion, too
    No higher purpose to things
    No reason to believe that anything is worth doing one way more than another — no right or wrong whatsoever.

    Imagine no possessions
    So, no reason to work or strive or do anything but lie on the couch and vegetate. Nothing to accomplish with your life or being or efforts at all. Because, hey, who gives a f***?


    I dunno how YOU see Hell, but I think that qualifies as a pretty thorough definition of one to start with.

  16. @IGotbubkis – that is interesting to speculate. Some years ago PBS had a fascinating series on the cooperation the Nazis and communists really had – Pre 1941 – Soviet revisionist history aside (with Operation Barbarossa) It was close.

    Which is one reason, NKVD warnings were ignored and for the first few days Stalin was really reeling from the invasion – he couldn’t believe it.

    But Stalin being Stalin I wouldn’t be surprised that he has his own plans for Hitler.

    On the sneering Euros, many are surprised when they come here and plan on taking day drives from, say, Yosemite to Las Vegas – they are always surprised by the distances.

  17. If you read the utterly poisonous lunacy that was european philosophy in the 19th century, you will find all of the ingredients for the suicidal brew they distilled and drank in the 20th.

    The calamity of WW1 was the truly siesmic event of the 20th century, and we are still dealing with the various waves of historical cause and effect that it engendered, and have been for almost a century now.

    The current, and seemingly endless, conflicts in the middle east are a direct result of the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and the succeeding decades of rule by various european powers.

    Indeed, it can be easily shown with a global map that most of the foriegn problems the US has dealt with for the past century are along the fault lines left after the collapses of the various empires and world powers that fell during and after WW1, starting in europe itself with the conclusion to the first war, commonly known as WW2.

    It is easy to see the derivation of the following conflicts, whether cold or hot, once the context is understood.

    Starting with the fall of Spain, the collapse of the empires dictated much of 20th century events, and still does.

  18. Surprised by distances? I once knew a German exchange student in a school in Raleigh, NC. While he was there, his parents took a vacation trip to Las Vegas, and called him up a few days before to ask him to join them for the weekend. They thought he could just pop on over.

  19. Surprised by distances. . . .

    When I lived in the U.K., acquaintances who were planning trips to the U.S. would ask my advice about what to see; I routinely had to point out that the travel plan they had already cooked up wouldn’t allow them anything but travel.

    Somewhere I read an account of a German soldier taken prisoner and shipped to a P.O.W. camp in the States. He & fellow prisoners were placed on a train and sent West; he ended up in (IIRC) the Dakotas. During the day they could tell they were headed West, but it took so long for them to get where they ended up they decided that the train was meandering or backtracking during the night just to confuse them!!

  20. “I am currently reading a book on th rise of Hitler in Germany – as seen though the eyes of the Dodd family. Dodd was made ambassador to Germany –”

    That is an excellent book. It was revealing that no one wanted the Germany assignment.

    As I recall, Gamelin the French generalissimo did not have a telephone in his office.

    Another book on armored tactics in the 1930s was written by De Gaulle. He was rejected by the general staff which encouraged him to break in 1940. with them and go to England.

    There is a pretty good book on the collapse of the French army. I have it somewhere. It is called Strange Victory. Another good book is Shirer’s “Collapse of the Third Republic.” I find I am rereading a lot of books in my library. It worries me that they are still pertinent.

  21. Available on ROKU – The Spies of Warsaw. The protagonist is a French army officer working in intelligence in Pre-WWII Warsaw who tries in vain to convince the French High Command that the Germans are planning an attack through the Ardennes. It is a British production.

  22. The Polish intelligence service was, of course, responsible for the biggest intelligence break of the war. That was the ENIGMA machine they stole and gave to the French. That sounds like an interesting story.

  23. I was trying to find the title of the book I read years ago on that subject Michael and came up dry – but it is a fascinating story. What became the enigma was a machine invented in the 1920s and they couldn’t find a buyer – for civilian use.

    You liking science – most interesting book in the category of “most influential man I had never heard of” – here is my nomination –

  24. Mike K…in case you missed it, I wrote about the Enigma machines and their breaking here: The Bombe Runs Again.

    The Germans also had another encryption device which ran on very different principles and was used to encypher teleprinter messages…used for communication with and between higher command levels. It’s interesting that the British were able to deduce the logical structure of this machine through analysis of the message text, even though they hadn’t ever seen one. I believe the same is true of the American breaking of the Japanese MAGIC codes.

  25. The first real blitzkrieg. It’s not surprising every one was surprised. The concept was new to war and the old guard, the guys who end up running the military had no clue. It’s true it was a primitive example of what came later and was largely done on the backs of horses but the concept was what won the campaign.

    Mike K. Manstien was a very good general but Heinrici and Manteuffel were perhaps the best they had. interestingly Hienrici was married to a Jew and eschewed the Nazi party.

  26. “Beginning on May 27, the British evacuated their troops at Dunkirk”: and very large numbers of French troops too. The Frenchmen were carried across Southern England by train and returned to France, behind French lines. They were fairly promptly ordered to surrender. The British troops left at Dunkirk to make room for the French must have been delighted by this decision-making. This tale does, however, emphasise how astounded everyone was by the French collapse.

  27. Awhile back I read a book called The Scientific Way of Warfare. It was a more technical study comparing eras of warfare with the scientific paradigms that were going on at the time. Not just technologies used but how actual strategies and tactics mirrored the technologies.

    For example, Clausewitz’s ideas about friction and centers of gravity came from principles of thermodynamics.

    The book touches on the German operational tactic of Auftragstaktik. This is the decentralized field operations. It can be compared to the uncertainty principle at the micro level in quantum mechanics. All the while the French were depending on old paradigms of fixed structured lines.

    Anyway supposedly German field commanders were given the order,
    ‘cross the French border, move to the French coast, we don’t care how you do it’

    It could have actually failed badly had the French not been so intimidated. It did eventually later succumb to strategic failures from Hitler’s micrmanagement.

  28. @ Grurray; love the comparison. Spot on.
    At the tactical level the Fall of France wasn’t a walk in the park. Sharp, pitched battles (called ‘meeting engagements’) were fought constantly, especially crossing the Meuse River. The Germans were prepared for chaos. The French weren’t. The only people more frightened than the French by the the rapid advance of the panzers in 1940 were the German General Staff. They started to lose their nerve as the spearheads got further and further out in front. Not everyone was on board with the concept.
    This tactical/operational training and doctrine was consistent. In the North African desert in November/December 1941, the ‘front’ at times looked like a squashed multi-layered wedding cake. From north to south and east to west were alternating formations of Axis/Allied/Axis/Allied…etc.
    In a situation in constant flux the outnumbered Germans quite often were as clueless as to reality as the British, but the staff functioned according to their training, while Rommel and everybody else was running around looking for, or trying to avoid, trouble.
    Now, there was this one haymaker launched by Rommel, his Afrika Korps divisions driving deep into the British rear. But it hit absolutely nothing. His staff hadn’t opposed his notion, being swayed by visions of scotch whiskey and canned fruit as booty.

  29. In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir reflects on the attitude of the French Left (of which she was a part) toward the rise of Nazi Germany…”there was no threat to peace; the only danger was the panic that the Right was attempting to spread in France with the aim of dragging us into war.” (Horne) A constant thread that runs through France in the 1930s is the extreme factionalism, often resulting in more fear and distrust of other Frenchmen than of the rising external enemy.

    Like Sgt. Mom, I was impressed by how this description of France of over 70 years ago parallels the US of today, where many leftists see wingnuts as THE ENEMY much more so than Muslim Jihadis, and where many leftists believe that the Muslim Jihadi threat is something that the wingnuts have invented.

  30. There is a similarity between Simone de Beauvoir’s description of politics in France just before they lost the Battle of France and were invaded and the descriptions of politics in Constantinople in 1204 leading up to them insulting the Crusader army camped outside their city one too many times and resulting in the Crusaders breaching the walls and capturing Constantinople, effectively ending the eastern Roman Empire. Although the Muslims would not capture Constantinople until 1453, the place was really run by a series of warlords and the bureaucracy and civic organization never really recovered from the events of 1204.

  31. PenGun is correct in that the German Army was the best at “combined arms”. They had figured out a way of using bombers, tanks and infantry to devastate their opponents. One tragic aspect is that a Western army was used to such evil ends.

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