An Unexpected Defeat

‘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 plan 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 things that are going on in America today.

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Nuclear News Update

The big news, of course, is that Germany has now closed its remaining reactors.  You can see the changes in their energy production and consumption mix at Electricity Maps.  It would be an irrational decision in any case, and under current circumstances seems pretty close to insane.  The good news is that there seems to be a lot of strong negative reaction to the shutdown, coming not only from conservatives and people mainly concerned with the economy, but also from a lot of people who are strong environmentalists and believers in the essentiality of CO2 reductions for climate reasons.  (Here’s a pro-nuclear rally at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany)  It is also interesting that Forbes magazine, a publications which IMO has becomes substantially less impressive and useful in recent years, ran an article responding to the shutdown with the headline Germany Embraces Pseudoscience.

Around the world, there are a lot of very positive things happening with Nuclear.

One of the two new reactors in the  very-long running expansion of the  Vogtle power plant in Georgia, Unit 3,  is operational and connected to the grid. Unit 4 is scheduled to enter service around the turn of the year.  These reactors are Westinghouse AP1000s.

French Members of Parliament voted to eliminate the targeted limit of 50% of energy produced by nuclear, which was passed in 2015 in the name of being ‘green’.  Mark Nelson recalls a righteous rant from 2017 in protest about a plant shutdown that was required by this limit.

In Poland, there are a lot of nuclear projects on the table.  The US is lending the country $4 billion to partially fund the construction of up to 20 Small Modular Reactors, which are projected to be BWRX-300s from the GE-Hitachi joint venture.  However, it appears that the first plant in Poland to go operational will be a large plant based on Westinghouse AP1000s.

Here is a spreadsheet of the potential Polish nuclear projects, with the customers, reactor types, and estimated timing.

A major problem with nuclear, and a reason often given for taking a dismissive attitude toward this energy source, is the length of time require to build new plants.  An example of a nuclear project accomplished on a considerably better than typical schedule is the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the United Arab Emerates.  The link (twitter) describes the approach that was taken; there’s also a video interview with Mohammed Al Hammadi, CEO of Emirates Nuclear. Looks interesting–I watched the first 15 minutes so far–Al Hammadi is an EE and started out as an engineer doing power network design. The reactors in this plant are based on a Westinghouse design and fabricated and installed by a Korean company.

Attitudes are changing toward nuclear in Denmark.

A large nuclear plant in Egypt is being constructed by Russia, with 85% of the cost ($28 billion) paid for via a loan from that country.

4.2 GW of nuclear capacity under consideration in Bulgaria.

Nuclear plant construction costs by country, over time.  (at Twitter)

Attitudes toward nuclear in Germany, by age range. (also at Twitter)  Compare these numbers with those from the same poll, two years ago (in the comments)…attitudes have become more positive. Will the politicians listen?

A deal among GE-Hitachi Nuclear, the TVA, and the Polish company Synthos Green Energy, involving GEH’s small modular reactors.

NuScale Power, which is focused on Small Modular Reactors, has placed an order for long leadtime materials with Doosan Enerbility of Korea.  The initial modules are for a project of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, targeted to be in commercial operation as early as 2029.

But also, some not-so-favorable news:  Taiwan is shutting down a nuclear reactor which is apparently in perfectly good shape.   Angelica (at Twitter) says:  “The 985MW BWR from GE has served Taiwan well for 40 years. But for politics, it could have served for 40 more. What a tragedy…but also, a farce.”  (I wonder what kind of message about Taiwan’s strength and seriousness this shutdown sends to the CCP…never mind, I already know)

This post isn’t by any means a comprehensive report, just a roundup of some recent news and analysis that caught my eye.  See also my previous Nuclear News, featuring the currrent Miss America, Grace Stanke.

Traute Lafrenz, Last of the White Rose

Traute Lafrenz, last surviving member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement known as the White Rose, has died.  She was a university student in Munich in 1941 when she met Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst and got involved in the group.  Her involvement became known to the Nazi authorities following the arrest of Hans and Sophie Scholl, and she was also arrested.  Unlike Probst and the Scholls, who were executed, she was sentenced to one year in prison…but following her release, she was rearrested, and was liberated by the Allies only three days before her scheduled trial, which would likely have led to her own execution.  After the war, she emigrated to the US, became a physician, got married, and had four children.  She retired to Yonges Island in South Carolina.

More about Lafrenz, and the story of the White Rose group.

My post about Alexander Schmorell, another member of the group.

There is a wonderful German movie from 1982 about the group, titled simply The White Rose.  It portrays them not as plaster saints, but rather as real, if highly exceptional, people–sometimes, as high-spirited kids.  In German with English subtitles, the film doesn’t seem to have ever made it to DVD, in the US at least, but VHS versions are often available on Ebay. Highly, highly recommended.

Time for FREXIT?

France is being fined 500 million Euros by the EU because it didn’t meet its ‘renewable energy’ goals in 2020.

Yet the CO2 intensiveness of France’s electrical generation is running about 121gCO2/kWh, while Germany is at 647gCO2/kWh.  Apparently, nuclear doesn’t count as ‘renewable’ by EU standards.  (The numbers would have surely been even more favorable to France in 2020 than those based on this 2022 snapshot, given that so many French nuclear plants are down for maintenance at the present time)