May 16, 2002

The Fall of France, 1940

Joshua Micah Marshall's Review of Ernest May (2000), Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France (New York: Hill and Wang: 0809089068).

I really, really, really want to recommend a book to you. It's called Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France and it's by Ernest R. May, a highly respected diplomatic historian. There are two reasons why this book is so good. The first is that it is just a marvelously engrossing narrative of one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th Century: the lead-up to the Second World War and particularly Hitler's lightning victory over France in May and June of 1940. It's just a very polished, compelling World War Two book and a very good read.

But it's much more than that.

May begins with a question that most of us would probably not imagine really was a question. That is, why did France lose?

From the newsreels, many histories, and the mythology of appeasement you'd get the impression that this was just a given, that Germany was strong and armed-to-the-teeth and France was unprepared and weak. But this just wasn't the case. May makes very clear that France (and especially France and Britain together) were both quantitatively and qualitatively stronger and better prepared for war. Simply put, on balance, they had more stuff and better stuff.

So then the question: why did they lose and lose so quickly?

May provides a complex series of answers to this question. But the key ones are easily stated.

One, the French intelligence services were inefficiently organized and intelligence gathering was not well wedded to policy-making. In other words, though France had better intelligence assets in Germany the French weren't particularly good at analyzing and making use of that information. Nor were they particularly good at crafting policy based on intelligence.

Two, the French military, though professional and well-equipped, was organized around a series of what one might call risk-averse doctrines which made it cumbersome, immobile and less agile and quick to react than it should have been.

May uses diplomatic, military and intelligence sources from the French and the German sides to assemble a very clear view of how the two diplomatic and war-fighting machines operated. May's readily apparent depth of familiarity with these sources is little short of breath-taking.

All of this combined to allow the weaker power, Germany, to defeat the stronger one, France.

What makes this book valuable to read today is that May makes a convincing case that our Western military and intelligence services are much more like that of the French circa 1940 than the Germans. And that's sobering.

This is the rare work of history that has very real application to constructing defense, intelligence and foreign policy today. More on Strange Victory soon.

My comments:

Dear Mr. Marshall:

I agree that Ernest May's _Strange Victory_ is an excellent book, a wonderful book. However, I'm not sure that it gets the story of the Fall of France right. I finished it thinking that since Ernest May is a historian of intelligence, he blames the collapse predominantly on intelligence failures--but that another historian who focused on something else could equally well and with equal evidence blame the collapse on other key factors.

Even after the misjudgment that was the French initial deployment--the extra army on the left to hook up with the Dutch, the drive for the advanced position at the Dyle River, the weak Ninth Army holding the Meuse through the Ardennes--that left the French vulnerable to disaster should the Germans break through at the Meuse, the French *should* have been able to recover. The Ninth Army was weak, but the Meuse was a strong position. And once it was clear that there was a major attack through the Ardennes, the French Army was not that slow to respond.

From _Strange Victory_ and _The Collapse of the Third Republic_, we can track the French reaction to the Nazi attack across the Meuse. The first thing to note is that the Nazi lead elements took up to 70% casualties and kept coming--indicative of extraordinary ideological commitment. In a world in which any "normal" unit breaks at 25% casualties or so, it's hard to beat people who keep coming at you: you can only hope that the enemy doesn't have that many of them. Had the Nazi soldiers been "normal," the initial attack by the seven panzer divisions would probably have failed, and the French would have had time to redeploy.

_Strange Victory_ reports that the French reacted quickly (albeit not quickly enough) to reports that the Germans were making a major offensive through the Ardennes:

p. 410: "At 3 P.M. on May 12 Huntziger signaled La Ferte that he wanted strong reinforcements to repel a prsopective German attack.... Three of the strongest elements in the general reserve proceed[ed] immediately to join Huntziger's Second Army: the Third Armored, Third Motorized, and Fourteenth Infantry divisions.... The infantry division was a crack unit commanded by... General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny..."

p. 410: "Gamelin and Georges on the morning of May 13 were keeping their eyes out not only for the great battle in Belgium but for... German forces debouching from the Ardennes and attempting to cut behind the Maginot Line..."

Thus three divisions from the general reserve were fed into the Meuse line on the 13th of May, and the French high command clearly knew it was a trouble spot. By May 15, the French First Armored division had been switched from the Belgian plain to the Ninth Army sector, infantry formations had been ordered to assemble behind the Ninth Army to form a new Sixth Army, and the Second Armored division had been ordered to assemble in its sector.

Within a few days later Charles de Gaulle was placed in command of the Fourth Armored division and told to attack the southern flank of the German breakthrough.

So what happened to all these forces--four heavy armored divisions with perhaps 800 tanks between them, plus a large chunk of the sixteen infantry divisions that were in the French strategic reserve on May 10?

Well...

... The First Armored division ran out of gas. While it was waiting for the fuel trucks to come up to refuel it, it was attacked by Rommel's panzer division and destroyed as a fighting unit. (Curiosity: the Czar of fuel for First Army--from which the armored division had come--was medieval historian Marc Bloch; did he make a huge mistake?)

... The Second Armored division... according to Shirer: "Orders for the [second armored] division to move... did not come until noon of May 13.... The trains with the tanks and artillery were not able to start until the afternon of the 14th.... The wheeled vehicles with the supplies ran into the panzers racing west from Sedan and, having no combat elements, withdrew south of the Aisne.... The tanks and tracked artillery were finally uinloaded from their flatcars... between Saint-Quentin and Hirson.... The division was hopelessly dispersed over a large triangle between Hirson, La Fere on the Oise, and Rethel on the Aisne..."

... The Third Armored division retreated to the south as General Huntziger had ordered: he thought its principal task should be to guard the Maginot line against a flanking attack should the Nazis turn south after crossing the Meuse.

... The infantry formations of the Sixth Army were overrun by Reinhardt's Sixth panzer division on May 15 and 16 while they were trying to assemble.

By May 16, as Shirer puts it (p. 689): "The three heavy [armored divisions] the French had, all of which in May 10 had been stationed... within 50 miles of the Meuse at Sedan and Mezieres, which they could have reached by road overnight, had thus been squandered.... Not one had been properly deployed.... By now, May 16, they no longer counted. There remained only the newly formed 4th [armored division], commanded by de Gaulle, which was below strength and without divisional training..."


The message I get from this is that the French threw 800 tanks in four armored divisions plus between six and ten infantry divisions in front of the Nazi breakthrough in plenty of time--yet (de Gaulle's account of what happened to his division in his memoirs aside) they were completely ineffective in a running fight against seven Nazi panzer divisions.

With such an extremely low level of performance in a running battle, it seems likely that the French in 1940 would have been decisively defeated no matter how good their intelligence and operational leadership had been. They failed in grand strategy--yes. They failed in strategy--yes. They failed in intelligence--yes. They failed in operational control--yes. But still the French managed to get plenty of troops to the Meuse line and plenty of troops to reinforce them in very good time--and still lost decisively.


Brad DeLong

A reply:

>Brad, this is a fascinating run-down of the issues
>involved, which i enjoyed reading and found illuminating.
>but i guess it begs the question, why were the french so
>bad operationally and in actually fighting? It seems to me
>that May's argument about the sclerotic nature of the
>French forces may come into play here too though, no?

>Josh Marshall

Yes, definitely. But a focus on the fact that the Nazis got inside the French decision loop again and again--so that the French were always reacting today according to orders given yesterday derived from situation reports made the day before which told of how things had been the day before that--weakens the case for the more strident of May's declarations, for example the claim on page 5 that if the French had "... anticipated the German offensive through the Ardennes, even as a worrisome contingency, it is almost inconceivable that France would have been defeated when and as it was. It is more than conceivable that the outcome would have been not France's defeat bug Germany's and, possibly, a French victory parade on the Unter den Linden in Berlin."

I think that May has a rhetorical problem. To the extent that he--as a historian of intelligence--wants to magnify the effects of the Allied intelligence failure, he then has a hard time giving proper weight to the evidence for French logistical, operational, organizational, and strategic incompetence. (Is it Shirer or May who says that the French air force had more combat-ready aircraft at the armistice than it had had on May 10?) To the extent that he gives weight to the French inability to keep the First Armored Division fueled, to move the Second Armored Division to contact, to use the Third Armored Division as more than a flank guard for the Maginot Line, the claims that successful intelligence would have led to a French victory parade down Unter den Linden appear weak...

Brad DeLong

Posted by DeLong at May 16, 2002 02:52 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Marc Bloch was the "fuel czar" in WW2, and he also
wrote an excellent book on the Fall of France -
"Strange Defeat". He was the fuel czar, and why
a medieval historian who was in the Infantry in
WW2 got the job I dont know :)

After the defeat he joined the Resistance, and
was either murdered by torture or died after it
when captured by the Gestapo in 1944.

My feeling is that the French Army's problem was
basically docrinal - they displayed a lot of the
same weaknesses that the Prussians displayed before 1809 (slow command response, inflexible
operational doctrine, inability to cope with rapid
tactical skirmnishing by independant elements).

And doctrine is very, very hard to fix in a hurry.

Ian Whitchurch

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on February 20, 2003 04:58 PM

____

WHO WAS MARC BLOCH

I am writing an article about Bletchley Park during the spring of 1940 and thus I've been studing evidence about what happened in France. I felt Marc Bloch's text the most clear explanation about the keys of the defeat (it is not really a "book" but 100 pages hastily written just after the battle finished, probably during the summer of 1940). He was a medieval historian but also a veteran officer with combat experience in First WW. To make short his long explanation he points firstly the unability of the French army for a moving war. Coordinated movement of large units has never been trained and the concentration point after retreats were always too near so the germans arrived before a front can be properly organised in all the ocasions. The French soldiers were frightened by the sight of tanks in open field because all the training has been done to fight in large units but the fast moving (first into Belgium, then back, to the south of Paris, etc) has scattered all the units because the difference in speed of its components. Secondly, the complexity of the French decision making process due to the excess of levels of command, the overlapping of responsabilities and the lack of a central inteligence gathering&disemination (he blames to this the fuel problems in which he works very hard for months with the known sad outcome). Finally he says that the high rank officers swap from an absurd self-confidence during the phoney war to a total defeatism after the Sedan breakthrough by the Germans.

About pure tactical combat he says that the Stukas were not so terrible once you get used to the noise, the deadly precision and the vertical falling of the bombs; what he says has started to happen one week after the tenth of May when the French officers had started to react coldly to Stuka attaks. The only real danger of the Stukas compared with the masive artillery shelling he has experienced in First WW is that you cannot disengage by retreating because they follow you wherever you go, while artillery need to be dismantled when you get out of range. On the other hand they were much less dense that a full scale shelling as he has experienced in the trenches and the probablity of surviving as an infantry soldier, much larger (not inside a vehicle or as gun servant that were similar). He states that surface fire with rifles can shot down Stukas after the diving when they fly slow like a goose at very low altitude.

About tanks against infantry, when he wrote his account he felt very sad for not having been able to try to shot tanks at short distance with the 75 mm guns that was his idea. He felt that the tanks were vulnerable to enough decided infantry forces with even small guns (and we must say that the English proved this in Africa the next year). He also felt sad for not having been able to make ambushes to the German companies in motobyke that he says were ridiculously vulnerable to a couple of well placed machineguns.

He says that the tactic after 15th May should have been to create small but numerous strong boxes of resistance in the crossroads and hit and run units to harras the roads. He says that the German advance was very disordered and this two things would have created havoc because they move very poorly outside tarmac (specially motobykes but also tanks). His opinion is that the armistice has been an act of defeatism because the German posesion of the field was weak and only apparent even at the end of May. The reason of the armistice to him is that the French high command identified (wrongly) the imposibility to create a continuous line of resistance with defeat.

In general he blames the lack of time to think (or the slowness to do so) of the French. It can be said that is an example of someone winning the battle on the paper after loosing it on the field. However, after writing this, he joins the French Resistence facing torture in Gestapo's hands so he shows that he has the balls to do what he says should have been done on the field in May 1940 (excuse my french). For me, he is a heroe and nobody has desired and would have deserved more a second oportunity than him. It is a sorrow that his second oportunity, that causes him death in horrible circumstances, was in the dark secret fight under German ocupation of France instead than being in a sunny day, with a gun in his hands and facing the enemy. Let the glory be on his memory anyway

Posted by: Roman Ceano on June 4, 2003 10:19 AM

____

WHO WAS MARC BLOCH

I am writing an article about Bletchley Park during the spring of 1940 and thus I've been studing evidence about what happened in France. I felt Marc Bloch's text the most clear explanation about the keys of the defeat (it is not really a "book" but 100 pages hastily written just after the battle finished, probably during the summer of 1940). He was a medieval historian but also a veteran officer with combat experience in First WW. To make short his long explanation he points firstly the unability of the French army for a moving war. Coordinated movement of large units has never been trained and the concentration point after retreats were always too near so the germans arrived before a front can be properly organised in all the ocasions. The French soldiers were frightened by the sight of tanks in open field because all the training has been done to fight in large units but the fast moving (first into Belgium, then back, to the south of Paris, etc) has scattered all the units because the difference in speed of its components. Secondly, the complexity of the French decision making process due to the excess of levels of command, the overlapping of responsabilities and the lack of a central inteligence gathering&disemination (he blames to this the fuel problems in which he works very hard for months with the known sad outcome). Finally he says that the high rank officers swap from an absurd self-confidence during the phoney war to a total defeatism after the Sedan breakthrough by the Germans.

About pure tactical combat he says that the Stukas were not so terrible once you get used to the noise, the deadly precision and the vertical falling of the bombs; what he says has started to happen one week after the tenth of May when the French officers had started to react coldly to Stuka attaks. The only real danger of the Stukas compared with the masive artillery shelling he has experienced in First WW is that you cannot disengage by retreating because they follow you wherever you go, while artillery need to be dismantled when you get out of range. On the other hand they were much less dense that a full scale shelling as he has experienced in the trenches and the probablity of surviving as an infantry soldier, much larger (not inside a vehicle or as gun servant that were similar). He states that surface fire with rifles can shot down Stukas after the diving when they fly slow like a goose at very low altitude.

About tanks against infantry, when he wrote his account he felt very sad for not having been able to try to shot tanks at short distance with the 75 mm guns that was his idea. He felt that the tanks were vulnerable to enough decided infantry forces with even small guns (and we must say that the English proved this in Africa the next year). He also felt sad for not having been able to make ambushes to the German companies in motobyke that he says were ridiculously vulnerable to a couple of well placed machineguns.

He says that the tactic after 15th May should have been to create small but numerous strong boxes of resistance in the crossroads and hit and run units to harras the roads. He says that the German advance was very disordered and this two things would have created havoc because they move very poorly outside tarmac (specially motobykes but also tanks). His opinion is that the armistice has been an act of defeatism because the German posesion of the field was weak and only apparent even at the end of May. The reason of the armistice to him is that the French high command identified (wrongly) the imposibility to create a continuous line of resistance with defeat.

In general he blames the lack of time to think (or the slowness to do so) of the French. It can be said that is an example of someone winning the battle on the paper after loosing it on the field. However, after writing this, he joins the French Resistence facing torture in Gestapo's hands so he shows that he has the balls to do what he says should have been done on the field in May 1940 (excuse my french). For me, he is a heroe and nobody has desired and would have deserved more a second oportunity than him. It is a sorrow that his second oportunity, that causes him death in horrible circumstances, was in the dark secret fight under German ocupation of France instead than being in a sunny day, with a gun in his hands and facing the enemy. Let the glory be on his memory anyway

Posted by: Roman Ceano on June 4, 2003 10:21 AM

____

are you tonya delongs relative or something

Posted by: Cockadoodledoo on November 5, 2003 07:01 AM

____

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