May-June 1940: The Victory that Shouldn’t Have Happened
Eighty years ago, the world was stunned when Nazi Germany conquered most of Western Europe in less than a month. The climax of this effort was the May-June 1940 defeat of the combined armed forces of Britain and France and the humiliating capitulation of the latter. At the time French historian, Marc Bloch, later executed by the Gestapo for his role in the French resistance, wrote a lengthy essay on the fall of France entitled, Strange Defeat — and it was. Although a series of myths have grown up around the German victory in 1940, it was totally unexpected at the time. In fact, if the German Army High Command had followed Hitler’s initial demand for an immediate offensive in the West on the heels of the victorious Polish campaign and the unimaginative original plan of attack, the most likely result would have been either another stalemate like World War I or possibly the defeat of Germany in 1940.
The first myth which needs to be dispelled is that the Germans invented a new type of warfare in the 1930s, which they called blitzkrieg. According to historian J.P. Harris, in a 1995 article for the journal War in History, while the term blitzkrieg was used in two German military articles in the 30s, neither advocated any radically new doctrine or approach to war, it was simply employed to mean a swift strategic knockout. In his memoirs, tank commander, General Heinz Guderian, commonly regarded as one of the authors of the concept wrote, “as a result of the successes of our rapid campaigns, our enemies coined the world Blitzkrieg. Indeed, the first known use of the term in an English language publication was a September 1939 Time magazine article on the Polish campaign.
Harris notes that, well into 1939, senior German officers continued to believe the infantry would remain the “Queen of the Battlefield” and the official report on the victory in Poland gave main credit to the infantry. The aim of the German High Command in Poland, France and later the Soviet Union was the envelopment of large bodies of troops, thereby severing their supply lines and forcing them to fight in unexpected, disorienting directions in order to break out. There was nothing new about this approach. It had been used by Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke in the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War and was enshrined as doctrine by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen before the first world war in his famous studies of Hannibal’s double envelopment of the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.
The second myth is that the German Army in 1940 was a modern, well-equipped juggernaut. Though the individual German soldier was first rate, splendidly uniformed and intimidating on parade with their goose step and “coal scuttle” helmets, the army that faced the Allies in the spring of 1940 was actually in poor condition overall. In his brief but excellent, 1940 Myth and Reality, former British defense ministry official and historian, Clive Ponting, tells us:
“Only five percent of its strength was in armoured Panzer divisions and ninety percent of the tanks were obsolete training models dating from the early 1930s or taken from the Czech army in 1939. Only the modern Panzers Mark III and IV matched Allied models and Germany produced just forty-five Mark IVs in the whole of 1939. Within Panzer divisions only a fifth of [support] vehicles were tracked and therefore capable of keeping up with the tanks. And only four infantry divisions were motorized so they could operate with the Panzer divisions. Half the German army was dependent on requisitioned civilian vehicles and the rest relied on 500,000 horses for mobility. (During the war the German army used 2.7 million horses — twice as many as in the First World War)” [parentheses are Ponting’s].
Along with these weaknesses, Ponting also notes that the German army was substantially outnumbered by 1 million by the combined forces of Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In addition, German tank numbers were inferior to the Allies by 1,100 and artillery by 3,800. The one area where the Germans were superior was in the air, where the Luftwaffe had greater numbers of aircraft as well as the philosophy to operate in close support of the army.
The third myth is that the French had lost stomach for another war and wanted to hide behind Maginot Line. The late Harvard historian, Ernest R. May, made a lengthy and detailed exploration of France’s defeat in his 2000 book entitled, Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France, in a nod to the earlier work of Marc Bloch. May’s research revealed that while the French had indeed suffered a bout of malaise and war aversion for most of the 1930s, the situation changed markedly by 1938–40. According to May, by the summer of 1939, when a new war was clearly imminent, French premier Edouard Daladier was complaining that he couldn’t appear in an open place or bistro without people standing up and crying, “Lead, we will follow you!” When war came in September, reporters said the prevailing mood in both Britain and France was one of resigned determination. When fighting actually commenced in May 1940, after more than eight months of military inactivity, reporters told of celebrations. One Danish journalist described Paris as, “bubbling with enthusiasm.” As for the Maginot Line, two of the key premises behind the idea were beyond dispute: first, that France could not match Germany in population and thereby in the potential size of its army and second, that geography made France vulnerable in several areas, particularly the Alsace-Lorraine region which shared a border with Germany.
The Maginot Line thus did not in itself commit France to a defensive strategy. On the contrary, its existence made it possible for France, despite its overall inferiority in numbers, to contemplate matching the Germans in a war of maneuver because only so many troops on either side could mass within the area not covered by fixed defenses — that between the Ardennes Forest and the English Channel coast. Though some French politicians and even military men advocated a completely defensive strategy with fixed fortifications all along the Belgian frontier, what in fact happened was the erection there of a very thin defensive line combined with preparation for a war of movement, perhaps in northeastern France but preferably on Belgian soil.
So, how is it that the Germans were able to achieve this remarkable victory in the face of confident opponents superior in both equipment and numbers? From May we even learn that Hitler’s grip on both the German army was far from iron when World War II first began in Europe. The army was a unique institution in Germany with antecedents that went all the way back to the days of the Prussian “Soldier King,” Frederick William I (1688–1740). The French revolutionary Mirabeau once quipped that “Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state.” As early as the 1938 Czechoslovakian Crisis, retired chief of the general staff, General Ludwig Beck and his successor, General Franz Halder were both involved in plans for troops from the Berlin military district to seize the Chancellory and arrest key Nazi leaders. The coup was put on hold when news arrived of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s flight to Berchtesgaden for talks with Hitler. In October and November 1939, when the Fuhrer was pressing his generals for an immediate attack in the West, which they thought would be disastrous, there were again discussions among some of the highest-ranking officers in the Third Reich about seizing Hitler and other Nazi leaders, then negotiating with the Allies for a settlement that would leave Germany in possession of Czechoslovakia and Western Poland.
Despite the German High Command’s severe misgivings about an early offensive in the West, they were still bound to come up with a plan of attack. The initial Fall Gelb or Case Yellow (in German military usage, a war plan was labeled a Case or contingency and assigned a color) had very the very limited objectives of occupying the Netherlands, to provide bases for air attacks on Britain and establishing as much of a favorable front in Belgium as possible. However, Generals (later Field Marshals) Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein with support from others protested that if the German army was to run the mortal risk of taking on both Britain and France, it should be on the basis of a plan that offered some genuine hope of victory. This argument also appealed to Hitler, who had long ago concluded that most of the army’s generals were far too timid.
Fall Gelb began to evolve during a series of postponements of the attack in the West due to winter weather and finally the accidental crash landing in Belgium of a plane in carrying a staff officer with a current copy of the Luftwaffe’s plan of attack in January 1940. Although the officer was able to destroy part of the plan before capture, what remained fell into Belgian hands. It had to be assumed, therefore, that the Belgians now knew at least something of the German offensive concept and were probably sharing this intelligence with the British and French. As a result, Hitler decided that the offensive would have to wait until spring.
The original Fall Gelb envisioned a special force designated, “N” under General Fedor von Bock moving toward Utrecht and the Dutch coast. Army Group B, also under Bock, would strike toward Brussels. Furthest South was Rundstedt’s Army Group A, tasked with preventing the Allies from counterattacking on the line of the Meuse River or east of it. But gradually Army Group A was strengthened and Hitler commanded that if Allied dispositions created a suitable opportunity, additional armoured and motorized forces should be transferred to Rundstedt and sent in the direction of the Ardennes Forest and the French town of Sedan. This flexible plan for Rundstedt’s army group was the one that would have gone into effect had the bad weather and capture of the Luftwaffe battle plan not occurred and the attack had gone ahead in mid-January 1940. The delay gave Manstein time to press his thesis that the objective should be total victory and that the best means to achieve this would be to make Army Group A the principle spearhead of the offensive. This became known as the “sickle cut” plan or the “Manstein Plan,” although as May shows, both Guderian and Hitler himself also deserve credit for its adoption.
This change in plans turned out to be a masterstroke because the Allied plan called for sending their main armies and best troops all the way up to the vicinity of the Dyle River in Central Belgium. But this did not mean that French and Allied supreme commander General Maurice Gamelin was the out of touch incompetent he was later portrayed to be. In May 1939, Gamelin had in fact toured the Ardennes sector and expressed serious concern about the weakness of French forces there, particularly shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons. As May recounts, in September, Gamelin predicted that the Germans would try to pin down French forces behind the Maginot Line, then “attack across the western frontier of Luxembourg into the Ardennes, sweeping south of the Meuse…” As May points out, Gamelin could have been sketching the final version of Germany’s Fall Gelb. But what would later cause Gamelin to discount an Ardennes scenario was his analysis of the Polish campaign. For Gamelin, it was critical not to repeat Poland’s mistake of trying to meet the German offensive head on. He had long favored the principle of defense in depth. He, therefore, thought it preferable that the front lines be as far forward as possible with northeastern France well to the rear, so the Allies could give up considerable ground to the Germans if necessary, to slow their advance and prepare a counterattack. He also came to think that the most logical place for a German tank offensive on the Polish model would be the coastal plain of Belgium, rather than the Ardennes, which he did not see as good tank country.
That proved to be a bad miscalculation for the speed of the German advance through the Ardennes sector was blinding, probably made even more so by the widespread use of methamphetamines by German troops (see Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich for more on this). After only eleven days (May 10–21) of operations, the German reached the channel coast and had surrounded and cut off the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with the best of the French Army. The toll on France’s morale and the confidence of its leadership was devastating. As early as May 15, Paul Reynaud, Daladier’s successor as premier phoned the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill to tell him, “We have been defeated, we are beaten, we have lost the battle.” Churchill tied to reassure Reynaud but at the same time began making plans for the evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk and refused to send anymore RAF squadrons to France. While there would still be some spirited fighting on the Allied side, notable the joint British-French counterattack at Arras on May 21, after this date the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt.
Hitler himself was stunned by the pace of the German advance, confirming an initial order by von Rundstedt to halt the army within sight of Dunkirk in order to conserve men and tanks for the campaign they still thought lied ahead. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring had also convinced Hitler that the remaining BEF and French forces could be destroyed solely from the air. Here Hitler’s instincts failed him, for if he had proceeded an entire British army, along with a significant number of French troops, would have been either killed or captured, leaving Britain in utter peril.
Germany’s strange victory or France’s strange defeat, however one chooses to see it, wasn’t the result of any vast superiority on the part of the Third Reich or its military. As is so often the case in military history, the unexpected intervened to help favor Germany. But the defeat was so quick, total and humiliating that myths quickly sprung up about French military incompetence, timidity and there being something lacking in the national character. This was further fueled by recriminations and finger pointing among French leaders, all of which has shaped the general public’s view of the events of May-June 1940 in Western Europe to present-day.