The Victory That Should Never Have Happened
The German triumph in the west in 1940 truly was one of the most incredible victories ever in all history, yet has been shrouded in myth to such an extent that the outcome is now widely regarded to have been nothing less than expected. In popular historiography, the ultra-modern, highly-trained and overwhelming German armed forces crushed all before them, employing the brilliant all-arms strategy of â€˜Blitzkrieg’. General Gamelin, commander in chief of the French forces, told Churchill that the reason for their defeat was, â€œInferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method. In fact, only the last was true.
Comparison of Armed Forces – Manpower
The German armies in the west had a strength of about 3 million men, compared with around 4 million French, British, Dutch and Belgians. In terms of divisions, the ratio was 135 German facing 151 Allied. The ten divisions spearheading the German Sickle Cut of Army Group A through the Ardennes, consisted of six panzer and four motorized divisions. Yet only a few others, about 10% in all, were also fully mechanised. Most moved on foot followed by horse-drawn wagons. Indeed, in the First World War, Germany used 1.4 million horses. In the Second World War, 2.7 million were used. Furthermore, only half these divisions were combat ready, so that the few elite divisions – 10 panzer and 6 motorized – were offset by many more second, third and even fourth-rate divisions. If the first wave was the elite of the regular army, the second wave was mostly younger soldiers from Reserve I. The third and fourth waves were made up of Reserve II, barely trained and often older men. Twenty-five percent of the Wehrmacht was over the age of forty. There were also around 100,000 men of the Waffen-SS available. The Totenkopf Division, for example, had shocked Wehrmacht troops in Poland with the brutal relish with which it carried out â€˜mopping-up’ operations, but because of its influence in the Nazi hierarchy, its commander, BrigadefÃ¼hrer Eicke, was able to equip his division sumptuously, and by 10 May could be considered fully motorized, much to the Wehrmacht’s great resentment. Despite their kit, such was the contempt with which they looked upon by the German Army, they were not employed in action until 18th May.
Comparison of Armed Forces – Artillery
In terms of artillery, the Allies were almost twice as strong with some 14,000 artillery pieces compared to 7,378 German.
Comparison of Armed Forces – Armour
The Allies also had a significant advantage in terms of armour. The French alone, along the Northeast front, could call upon 3,254 tanks, while the Germans had 2,439. Most of the French tanks, however, had better armour and better armament. Because of the tight restrictions of the Versailles treaty, Germany was almost a generation behind with regard to tank development. The Panzer I, for example, had only a machine gun and armour half an inch at its thickest. It had been conceived for training purposes and nothing more, yet now accounted for a fifth of Germany’s panzer force. There were 955 Panzer IIs but the main advancement on the Mk I was its rather feeble 20mm gun. Panzer IVs had a 75mm gun, but it was a stubby affair with poor range and velocity and in any case, there were only 278 of them. It also only had 30mm of armour. In contrast, the French Char B had 60mm of armour while the British Matilda had 80mm. When the 6th Panzer Division attacked French tanks on 17th May, one French tank was hit 25 times with barely a dent. Furthermore, both the French Char B and Somua had 47mm guns, and the Char B also a 75 mm gun.
Comparison of Armed Forces – Air
Even in the air, the Allies had superiority. On paper, the Luftwaffe had 5,446 aircraft and the French 5,026, but operational, or combat ready, the Germans admittedly had 2,589, while France had only 879. This was because France was expecting a long, attritional war, and so had a comparatively small part of her available air force at the front on 10th May. However, the British had 384 aircraft in France on that day, and the Dutch and Belgians around 200 between them. And while the Luftwaffe put every available aircraft into the front at the outset, both Britain and France subsequently began reserves into the fray. By including these figures, a different strength ratio emerges. The Allied figure grows massively to 4,469 aircraft, a clear advantage.
So Where Did it Go Wrong for the Allies?
A military rule of thumb is that you should only attack if you have a 3:1 advantage in manpower, or more like 4:1 if attacking a proper defensive system, yet Germany was weaker than the Allies in every respect and still managed to pull of an incredible success. The point is this: Germany was superior in its conduct of battle – strategically, operationally and tactically.
Britain Between the Wars
By the end of the First World War, Britain had the best kit, the best gunners and frankly, the best army in the world. However, since it was the war to end all wars, most of what they’d learned on the Western Front was quickly forgotten and they reverted back to the shrunken pre-1914 army that was designed as a colonial force to combat problems in places such as Iraq, the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan. In no way could it be said that the British Army embraced modern technological developments. As late as 1938, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were lobbying Parliament and writing letters to The Times in righteous indignation about being forced to give up their horses for anything so vulgar as tanks. There were forward-thinking writers like Liddell-Hart, but he was a journalist, and journals such as RUSI, but these were largely ignored. Certainly any officer who tried to voice ideas about future combat and tactics was seen as at best eccentric and at worse dangerously subversive. Admittedly, changes had been made, and the BEF was actually pretty well equipped by 1940, but the thinking had not; not until the summer of 1942 were the British finally developing the kinds of all-arms tactics that could beat the Germans.
France by 1940
France had fewer colonies than Britain and had been far more traumatised than Britain by the experience of the First World War. As a result, they were determined nothing like should ever happen again. The attrition of the First World War had proved that concrete was king. The side with the stronger economy and the best defences would ultimately prevail. This view did not alter in the 1920s and 1930s. The Maginot Line, a series of inter-connected reinforced bunkers mounting heavy artillery, anti-tank and machine guns and protected by reams of obstacles, was named after the French defence minister – a Verdun veteran – who devised the plan in the 1920s. Stretching from the Swiss to the Belgian border, it ran for 87 miles and cost more than 7,000 million francs. And it was built at a time of political upheaval, financial mayhem, and with an increasingly dominant left wing bleating against any form of rearmament at all.
And when it was finished, there was still 250 miles unprotected along the Belgian border, a country that refused French troops any entry because of its strict neutrality.
French military thinking was thus dominated by the trauma of the First World War. It had not moved on at all, except that now they had better equipment and better defences. Military doctrine centred around the concept of â€˜the methodical battle,’ whereby everything was planned in great detail and carried out according to a pre-prepared plan. This led to very rigid centralization and adherence to top-down orders, which ensured there was little or no scope for initiative in low-level commanders. This in turn meant that the French army was not equipped to deal with the unexpected.
Any new war would be dealt with by first sitting tight and waiting for the enemy to attack. From their bunkers they would halt the enemy with heavy fire as local reserves were brought up, bringing any enemy attack to a standstill. Only once superiority had been achieved in men and material at the main point of attack would the French then go on the offensive. Thus, French armour was only ever conceived as being infantry support, rather than an independent arm.
It was a cumbersome process designed for the long-haul attritional war of twenty years before, but while the French had pretty good tanks, guns, and a phenomenal amount of concrete, they lacked decent, properly thought out logistics and disgracefully neglected developments in communications. The French Army had few radios so that communication was achieved mostly via telephone or couriers. Telephones were fine so long as the front line was not disrupted – which it inevitably was – while messengers were obviously horribly slow.
In fact, the French system was unwieldy in every way. The chain of command was also top heavy and convoluted, with Gamelin as Commander-in-Chief, and then General Georges C-in-C North-East Front, then three Army Groups under him, and within Billotte’s First Army Group, no less than five armies, of which the BEF, with half a million men, was one. Furthermore, the French commanders were old – all in their sixties and command veterans of the First World War. Commanding armies is an exhausting job – you get little sleep, while the mental and psychological demands are intense. Army commanders need to be able to grasp information and intelligence quickly and then act decisively, something that is better suited to man in his forties and fifties. Interestingly, nearly all the German commanders were of this age: Guderian was 51, von Kleist 58, Halder 55, Reinhardt 53, Rommel 48. Only von Runstedt was in his sixties: 64. General Weygand, on the other hand, who took over from Gamelin on 21st May, was 73.
The entire French approach was defensive and negative – and a negative mindset takes hold in many counter-productive ways. The huge cost of the Maginot Line and the appeasement and non-aggression line of the French government and political left also played an enormous part in formulating policy, but this endemic defensive attitude – this rigidity to the methodical battle plan – ensured the French did not march into Germany when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, nor again when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Had they done so on either occasion, the Second World War would almost certainly have never taken place. In the latter case, Hitler had thrown almost all his forces into the Polish campaign, leaving little more than a skeleton force along the West Wall. Had France mobilized, she could have reached Berlin virtually unopposed. As General Halder, the German Army’s Chief of Staff, commented, â€œThe success against Poland was only possible by almost completely baring our western border. If the French had seen the logic of the situation and had used the engagement of the German forces in Poland, they would have threatened the Ruhr area, which was the most decisive factor for the German conduct of war.
Furthermore, France’s unwillingness to step out from behind her defensive system proved to keen-eyed observers like Heinz Guderian that France was not offensively minded and that her commanders were overly cautious. It suggested they hoped to avoid a serious clash of arms.
This was indeed the case, but when it came, a carefully prepared plan, laid out in minute detail was immediately put into effect. France had been so certain that Germany could only attack through the Low Countries that her commanders had completely failed to look at alternatives. And the German deception plans – not least the massed air attacks and the airborne operations – seemed so obviously to point to the northern attack being the main enemy thrust that it literally never occurred to them that the principle point of attack could be anywhere else. So it was that French reconnaissance planes only occasionally buzzed over the Ardennes, where they were pounced by the Me 109s waiting for them. By not looking very hard they completely missed the gridlock that was unfolding there on the ground. To paraphrase Wellington before Waterloo, they were well and truly humbugged.
Opposition of the German Brass
Germany military leaders did not share the entrenched defensiveness of the French, yet few believed any future war would be one of speed and mobility. Consequently, that many of the top brass in the German Army High Command were against von Manstein’s plan is not really that surprising. Everything was being thrown into a highly risky operational plan, which, on paper at any rate, looked likely to fail. The fate of Germany was to depend on the success of a single operation – and what an operation: almost Germany’s entire panzer force was to be thrown through the dense and rolling landscape of the Ardennes forest – in the view of many, impassable to massed armour and M/T. The logistics of safely passing through an entire Army Group through a web of narrow, winding roads would be a nightmare. The spectre of Allied reconnaissance planes spotting this mass of traffic was the stuff of nightmare for the German command. The chance of success seemed to rest not only on every part of the German operation going to plan – and that rarely, if ever, happened – but also on the enemy making a number of decisive mistakes.
Moreover, the majority of German army generals failed to be convinced by the thrusting theories of mobile warfare championed by von Manstein, Guderian and a few others. Historians have talked of a battle between conservatives and progressives, but there were precious few of the latter to make that possible. Rather, the majority thought rather like the French that any future conflict with the Western Powers would become one of positional warfare once more, as it had in 1914-18.
On 15 March, with the Sickle Cut plan recently given the green light, Hitler had summoned von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, and his generals, for a meeting at the Reich Chancellory. Guderian was the last to speak and as he explained his plan for once the Meuse had been crossed, General Busch, commander of the Sixteenth Army, said, â€œWell, I don’t think you’ll cross the river in the first place. Guderian commented that only he, von Manstein and Hitler seemed to believe in it at all. In fact, von Manstein had by this time been sidelined and Hitler was at best a fickle ally. Certainly, von Rundstedt, commander of the Army Group A, was a sceptic, while General von Bock, CO of Army Group B, thought it insanity. However, Guderian was not entirely correct to say this. Most of his corps commanders were behind him, as were Generals Reinhardt and Rommel. Most importantly, so too was General Halder, the Army Chief of Staff – albeit a late convert – which was just as well because von Manstein’s replacement as Chief of Staff at Army Group A, General von Sodenstern, was possibly the Sickle Cut plan’s fiercest opponent and did all he could to dilute and slow the whole operation down.
Germany Has No Choice But to Go For Broke
Yet ultimately, the German High Command had no choice in the matter. Against two western sea powers – France and Britain – and with the experience of defeat in the First World War, the war already seemed strategically lost. In the battle of attrition, besieged, continental Germany could not hope to win. Their only chance of success was a single, operational go-for-broke gamble. Their chances of pulling it off seemed slight to many within the German command, but what alternative was there? As Halder told von Bock, â€œEven if the operation only had a 10% chance of success, I would stick to it. It alone will lead to the enemy’s annihilation.
Gamelin Falls For the German Plan – And Some
Fortunately for the Germans – and unfortunately for the many millions caught up in the most destructive war ever know that would follow – almost everything went even better than they had dared to hope, beginning with the French falling hook, line and sinker into the German plan. In fact, Gamelin could not have done more to help the Germans. On the face of it, the Dyle Plan – moving British and French divisions forward through neutral Belgium to the River Dyle once the Germans attacked – was a reasonable one. It meant the enemy was engaged well away from France; it ensured a link with the Belgian Army, who would otherwise have fallen back to the natural redoubt around Antwerp; and it enabled a possible counter-offensive towards Germany to be conducted over favourable ground close to the Ruhr region, Germany’s industrial heart. The problem was that Gamelin then added what became the Breda Variant, whereby French troops would push onto Breda via Antwerp, and so create a continuous front from the Netherlands to the Swiss Alps. It was pure First World War thinking, but meant that instead of sending 15 divisions (10 French and 5 British) to the Dyle Line as had originally been the intention, 30 divisions – and amongst the Allies’ best – were now to be sent. For eg, the French 7th Army, instead of being held in reserve around Reims, only 40 miles from Sedan, was sent to the left flank of the northern advance, where it was poised to push towards Breda itself. Thus, 30 of the Allies’ best divisions began advancing directly away from the German main point of effort. The revolving door plan envisaged by von Manstein and Guderian was moving fast, leaving the vulnerable weak spot open to the savage thrust the German panzer force was about to make.
That Germany was forced to gamble everything on one trump card, was almost entirely down to Hitler himself. Reoccupying the Rhineland had been an enormous risk but he had pulled it off: the Western Powers had done nothing in response. And having made such a decision once it was easier to do it again. And so next came the unopposed anschluss with Austria and then the unopposed march into Czechoslovakia. Britain and France were not happy about these events but they did nothing to stop them.
Only with Poland under threat did they promise to declare war if Germany invaded the country. Hitler was convinced Britain and France were bluffing. Economically and militarily, Germany was not ready for a world war. His commanders recognized this and urged him not enter Poland. Even GÃ¶ring was against it. But Hitler was a gambler, and a man who had begun to believe he was invincible, and so he did not heed the warnings and on 1st September 1939 sent Germany into war. He had gambled everything on the throw of one dice and failed catastrophically.
The problem was that because he had had no intention of fighting a war with the Western Powers, he had no strategy for fighting them. Poland had only ever been envisaged as a short operation. Britain and France, however, were no Poland. The idea that Hitler and his commanders had a Blitzkrieg strategy developed for war against Britain and France in nonsense. Indeed, not until Hitler was told of von Manstein’s sickle cut plan on February 2nd 1940 – ie, five months after Britain and France declared war – that Germany had an operational plan that had even the slightest chance of success. In between time, Hitler had repeatedly called for a strike into the west as soon as possible, based on the old 1914 plan of striking through the low countries, precisely as France had always anticipated. Furthermore, his stated goals were quite limited: to destroy as much of the French army as possible and to create a firm foothold from which to prosecute an air and sea war against England. The fact that he had almost no navy shows how removed he was from reality. Furthermore, these goals are not those of a Blitzkrieg stategy. The reason Hitler wanted to attack immediately was to prevent the Allies from further building up strength. He was ignoring the fact that the German military arsenal was largely bankrupt after the Polish campaign or that it was Germany who needed the seven months to May 1940 in which to prepare for an attack on the west. Unfortunately, his commanders managed to persuade him to delay using the excuse of poor weather and approaching winter to successfully to dissuade him.
Hitler as a military leader cannot be taken at all seriously, and it was one of the disasters for the Germans that the Victory in the West enabled Hitler to portray himself as a genius and inspirational warlord. For example, the fact that he wanted an airborne operation against Sedan also revealed how little he understood strategically. Such an operation went directly against the deception plans for the Sickle Cut. And although it is true that Hitler had, by November 1940, wanted an attack towards Sedan, this was to be one of three main points of attack – which went counter to the blitzkrieg principle of concentration of force – and had entered his mind not because of any great strategic thinking but because of Sedan’s place in the German psyche as the point where Germany had secured victories in 1870 and 1914.
It is surely no coincidence that Hitler chose the Ardennes as the place through which to launch his final large-scale offensive, for it is the place where he had secured his greatest victory back in 1940. Since then, the dictator had led Germany into one disaster after another, disaster yet his decision to attack the west once more was met with universal incredulity by his commanders. None were able to dissuade him, however. The Battle of the Bulge, as it came to be known, certainly held up the Allied advance, but only to the cost of those fighting on the Eastern Front and thus with far-reaching consequences for the end of the war. Had that manpower and machinery devoted to the Ardennes battle been thrown against the Russians instead, many more Germans would have survived the war and the Cold War borders that followed may well have looked very different.
Truly, it was an insane decision and one that never had any real chance of success not least because the Americans of 1944 were not the French of 1940. Inexperienced greenhorns they may have been when they landed in Northwest Africa in November 1942, but the Americans learned fast and furthermore, had the support of the biggest economy in the world behind them. Logistics and communications within the US Armed Forces were superb by December 1944 – as had been demonstrated by the lighting dash across France to the West Wall in August and September. Furthermore, the Americans understood, as the French had failed to understand, that any rapid mobile strike can be stopped in its tracks if the key nodal points are defended long enough.
In 1940, the German spearhead was operating to a strict timetable, to ensure that objectives were always met before the enemy could marshal a response. These were always achieved. In the snow and ice of the Ardennes in December 1944, the Germans fell behind the timetable from the outset. And key to that was the defence of hubs such as St Vith and Bastogne. Yes, St Vith eventually fell, but not until the German 5th Panzer Army’s offensive had already been derailed. Bastogne, on the other hand, never fell at all. Hitler had thrown the dice again, and as before, he had failed.