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03 04 05 06 07 */RRD 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3
Men prefer one great lie to a mass of small truths.
List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: New Theories of Warfare 1
l. War as Pseudoscience: 1920-1939 7
2. The Maginot Line and Hitler's Response 28
3. The Tank Production Myths 43
4. Lessons Mislearned: Poland and the Winter Wars 62
5. The Germans and the Allies Prepare for War 96
6. The German Assault and the Fall of France: May-June 1940 116
7. The Uses and Misuses of Armor: North Africa, Italy, the Eastern Front 154
8. The Failure of Strategic Airpower: 1940 -1944 190
9. Normandy and the Breakout at Saint-Lo: Summer 1944 210
10. The Breakthrough Failures: Arnhem, Metz, Bastogne 244
11. Conclusion: The Persistence of Failed Ideas 279
/ am just as puzzled as the French ... at our [air] arrangements.
HENRY POWNALL, BEF CHIEF OF STAFF*
In the spring of 1940 a series of events caused the German high command to change its plans for the constantly aborted offensive against France. Like the quasi-mythical Schlieffen Plan of August 1914, the new plan has exercised a peculiar fascinationon military analysts. The story goes like this: Prior to January 1940 the German plan was entirely conventional, involving a broad thrust right through Belgium. The Allied armies would be defeated either inside that country or on the Franco-Belgian frontier. But on January 10,1940, a German officer carrying a copy of the current offensive plan went down near Mechelen-sur-Meuse in Belgium. The officer attempted to destroy the documents, but an alert Belgian officer managed to retrieve most of them. Consequently the German high command believed that the Allies now knew the details of their offensive (whose latest starting date was, by coincidence, January 17,1940).
This provided the impetus for a young staff officer, Erich von
Manstein, to develop a new and revolutionary plan in which a massive German armored force would traverse the Belgian Ardennes Forest, cross into France above Sedan, and cut off the advanced French and British forces like the sweep of a scythe—hence the name Sichelschnitt (scythe cut). This plan, which Hitler adopted over the objections of his generals, resulted in the brilliant German success of 1940.
Several stories ride along in the wake of this. The main one: In their various guises these emphasize the defensive mentality of the French, the foolish neutrality of the Belgians, the failure to appreciate the power of armor and the loss of air supremacy to the Germans. The only part of the story that redounds to the credit of the Allies is the successful evacuation of the bulk of the British army at Dunkirk.
(AMD: Wrong. Hitler was gracious in the hope of achieving an agreement with the British.)
Not surprisingly, given this last, the authors of these tales are British apologists. A more objective account of the events of 1940 makes clear that these stories are designed to justify a series of British blunders that led to the virtual abandonment of the continent to Hitler and Stalin, and the end of Great Britain as a major military power. Led by a great commander, Montgomery, British troops would return to Europe and participate in the victory over Hitler. But those soldiers would be mostly armed with American weapons, they would be operating under overall American command, and they would be vastly outnumbered by American soldiers.
The Scandinavian Obsession
Any discussion of May 1940 is complicated by the ineptitude of the leadership on both sides. On the Allied side the ineptitude may be explained quite simply: up until the moment of the actual attack, the Allies were focused on Scandinavia, an obsession culminating in their amateurish excursion against Norway. As Brian Bond remarks, "In the knowledge of the outcome of the German onslaught on the Low Countries and France in May 1940 it now seems almost incredible that in the period from January to April inclusive the Allies were more concerned, one might fairly say obsessed, with extending the war to Scandinavia."2
A study of the actual engagements in the Norwegian fiasco is far outside the thrust of this book. Other than demonstrating the almost total
incompetence of the Allied military commands, it holds no particular military lessons for the course of the war, and its military importance to the war is peripheral.3 (AMD: Wrong. Norway provided access to iron ore, some control over the North Sea and the Barents Sea) But while a minor and insignificant operation in itself, it had enormous negative repercussions for both France and Great Britain. Thus a few words about the campaign are in order.
In the winter of 1939-40 the Allied leadership was pressed on two separate but related issues: to do something, anything, to combat Hitler, and to intervene on the Finnish side in the Russo-Finnish war. Public opinion was particularly restive in France (where, on March 20, 1940, the government finally fell as a consequence of Allied lethargy), but in retrospect it is difficult to say which country was the most intent on seeing action.
Initially the French had two separate schemes to propose. One was to reequip the sizable Polish army that had been re-formed in the fall of 1939 (there were nearly one hundred thousand Poles in uniform by May 1940), transport it to Finland, and let it thrash the Russians. The other was to mount a strategic bombing strike against Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus. British analysts have traditionally hooted down these suggestions, particularly the second, as preposterous, but they were hardly less so than the actual scheme the British government adopted. Basically this was an attempt to solve both problems with one operation: the Allies, taking advantage of a League of Nations resolution condemning the Soviet Union, would land an expeditionary force at Narvik in Norway and move it by rail across northern Sweden to Finland.
As a byproduct this expedition would traverse the Swedish iron ore fields. Just as the French believed that the USSR and Germany were dependent on Soviet oil fields, the British believed that Germany was dependent on shipments of Swedish iron ore. Without iron ore the German armaments industry would grind to a halt. In an attempt to remain in power post—September 1939, Chamberlain had taken Winston Churchill into the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Churchill was hearing reports from the Admiralty about the desirability of cutting off the ore shipments as early as September 18.4 The Admiralty believed that Germany was importing over four-fifths of its iron ore, some 9 million tons, from northern Sweden, and it was on this fact that Allied military policy—right up until May 10,1940—all hinged.5
So Churchill had proposed a scheme to interdict the iron ore traffic, which in the winter mostly went down the Norwegian coast. He and
the Admiralty wanted to mine the coastal waters, thus forcing the ships out to sea, where the Royal Navy could (it was thought) promptly dispose of them. The obvious problem with this scheme was that it involved an act (planting mines in the territorial waters of a neutral country) that was about the most flagrant violation of international law imaginable. So much so that even the Allied leadership had doubts, and this in turn led to the idea of an expeditionary force. Sir Edmond Ironside, the author of the scheme, thought it was a chance to "get a big return for very little expenditure," and proposed a force of some thirty thousand men.6
Modern readers of military history are accustomed to the term mission creep—that is, the tendency of small contained operations with definite goals to escalate into major affairs with no set objectives. Norway is the first modern case. By January 29,1940, Ironside's 30,000-man force had become a 150,000-man expeditionary force that would depart on March 12,1940, and land in Scandinavia on March 20. Helping Finland receded into the background: "We are quite cynical about everything except stopping the iron ore," Ironside noted gloomily in his diary.7
In their planning the Allies neglected two basic factors. The pretext for crossing Norway and Sweden was to help Finland. But by the end of January it was pretty clear that Finland couldn't hold out for more than a month or so at most. Would there even be any fighting going on by March 12? Probably not, and in fact there wasn't. And then no one had thought to ask the Norwegians and the Swedes how they felt about an Allied force of 150,000 men camping out on their national territory.
By a grim coincidence the original date for the sailing of the Allied expedition, March 12, 1940, was the date on which the Finns capitulated, with the "peace" being signed the next day. So the British, after a suitable delay, simply issued an ultimatum to the Norwegians, in which they asserted their "right to take such measures as they may think necessary to hinder or prevent Germany from obtaining in these countries resourcesor facilities which, for the purposes of the war, would be to her advantage or to the disadvantage of the Allies."8The reaction in Scandinavia was violent and bitter.9
On December 12,1939, Adm. Erich Raeder, commander in chief of the German navy, had brought up the problems inherent in a British occupation of Norway. On March 12,1940, Jodl, Hitler's military chief, recorded the hopelessly ingenuous remark that "now that peace has been
concluded between Finland and Russia, England has no political reason to go into Norway—but neither have we."10Hitler, however, agreed with Raeder.
So both sides planned to invade Norway. The Germans not only had a more comprehensive scheme of invasion, they were able to execute it more effectively. Despite the Royal Navy's command of the seas, the Germans managed to land an entire invasion force in Norway by sea without being intercepted; in the ensuing naval battles, both sides lost heavily. The British claim that German naval losses were worse, and technically this is true. But the Royal Navy lost what was essentially a carrier battle group: the Glorious, two cruisers, seven destroyers, and four submarines sunk, with another three cruisers and six destroyers out of commission through damage. Given the supreme importance of carrier-based aviation in the war—and Great Britain's desperate need for destroyers—the loss of a significant part of the German surface fleet was poor consolation indeed.11
It is at this point that the Norway campaign begins to impact the Allied war effort in two important ways. On the one hand, incredibly, during the spring of 1940, the Allies began to transfer men and equipment from France to Norway. As General Pownall recorded bitterly in his diary: "We are losing driblets away, not very much they may seem individually, but collectively the sum mounts and mounts."12The driblets did indeed mount up.
Nor was the drain restricted to the British. By May 10,1940, France had sent its crack alpine warfare specialist (General Béthouart) to Norway, along with four battalions of French alpine troops, two battalions of the Legion, and the Polish Podhalanska Brigade (four battalions). Now, these were precisely the sort of elite troops whose presence on the battlefield had always had an enormous impact in French military history. In the First World War, French alpine troops had frequently been the margin between a retreat and a route during the disasters of August and September 1914. Like the soldiers of the Legion, these units had an impact on the battlefield completely disproportionate to their numbers. The veterans of the Podhalanska Brigade had the inestimable advantage of having fought the Germans before. As Pownall said, the driblets added up.
Then there is the final blow. His troops having seized Norway and Denmark, Hitler gave little thought to their fate. For the next few weeks, his energies were turned to the next offensive, France, while the
Allied leadership was if anything increasingly turned toward Norway, and in more ways than one. The British and French publics—as opposed to their leaders—were growing increasingly aggravated by the lack of action. Although minorities in both countries—and particularly in France, where the Communist Party was strong politically—would continue to attack the whole idea of a war, the general population had long since turned the corner. They wanted Hitler stopped. Their countries were at war, and they wanted action.
On March 20, 1940, the Daladier government had fallen, and on precisely this point: France's failure to do anything military that anyone could point to. And in fact the collapse of the French government was one of the reasons the Allies had embarked their troops for Norway: They realized they had to be seen to do something, anything, and this was the only plan they had on the table.
The problem of course was that the Norway campaign was a fiasco. Anyone could look at a map and see that the only way the Germans could get to Norway was by water. Everyone realized it: The combined navies of Great Britain and France were the largest and most powerful fleets in the world. Yet they had failed to stop the invasion and now couldn't eject the Germans from the country.
In Great Britain, and particularly in Parliament, criticism of the Norway campaign was mounting, and although Chamberlain's main concern was to remain in office as prime minister, the leaders of the House would have no more of him. But who would replace him? The Chamberlain government collapsed at precisely that moment when the Germans began the run up to their offensive in the west. While the British tried to come up with a new prime minister, Germany attacked. Quite literally: On the evening of May 9, after the usual round-the-clock party conferences and negotiations, Winston Churchill became prime minister. While in London members of the House of Commons trooped home, doubtless with a certain feeling of contentment at having solved the problem, German soldiers were trooping off to their airplanes and gliders, waiting anxiously for the dawn of the tenth.
In the First World War, Great Britain had the great misfortune to have as its military commander Sir Douglas Haig, a man with many of the characteristics of Chamberlain, and certainly with the same determination to keep himself in power. And now the pattern repeated itself.
Lloyd George, the British prime minister from November 1916, had noted with some irritation in his memoirs how the British high command had turned defeats into victories, magnifying their successes and minimizing those of the enemy.13 Accounts of May 1940 followed the same predictable trail. The British were surprised by a new and daring German plan, overwhelmed by new tactics and weapons. Above all they were badly let down by the French, the Belgians, and the Dutch; had no choice but to retreat; and, by their skill and tenacity, turned the defeat into a victory at Dunkirk, evacuating their army almost intact and going on to fight another day. Other than the fact that the BEF did retreat and was mostly evacuated at Dunkirk, little in this account actually holds up to inquiry.
As noted earlier, Hitler was insisting on an immediate attack against France in early October 1939. Although the German high command resisted the directive as best they could, throwing up countless excuses to account for the delay, the staff had, in obedience to Hitler's directives, drawn up a plan of attack. In three key particulars this plan was simply the repetition of the plan used against Poland. It would begin with a surprise aerial attack aimed at destroying the enemy's air forces and giving Germany command of the air. Simultaneously airborne troops would be used to seize all the key bridges into the Netherlands and Belgium.
A ground attack on a broad front would begin right behind the air drops, with the aim of overrunning the Belgian defenses and forcing a passage through that country into France. As in Poland, the ground attack would be on a broad front. The plan envisioned three separate army groups, each mounting a separate offensive: Group B would attack through the Netherlands and Belgium, Group A through Luxembourg, and Group C directly against France. The planners hoped, rather nervously, that this attack would be synchronized with an Italian offensive in the south. Such an offensive, or at least the threat of it, would force the French to disperse their forces.
In the October order of battle, Group B was the largest of the three groups, comprising twenty-nine infantry divisions and eight of Germany's armored units, divided into three armies, the Second, Fourth, and Sixth. Group A, with a much smaller front, consisted of the Twelfth and Sixteenth Armies, twenty-six infantry divisions and one armored divi-
sion. Group C, charged with an offensive against French territory, consisted of twenty-five infantry divisions.
By March 1940 both the composition of the army groups and their areas of responsibility had been shifted.14 In the initial plan both army groups were to move east-west in an almost straight line, simply cutting across Belgium. By March the axis of advance had been shifted: They would move in a southwesterly direction, pivoting on the French frontier, and then head northwesterly toward the French coast. It was this last—a change in the direction of maneuver rather than in any other aspect—that gave the plan its name, as the trajectory of the two armies resembled nothing so much as the sweep of a scythe.
That being said, it is clear enough that the German high command made very few real changes to their offensive plans from October to March. Two main features of the plan—the airborne drops and the aim of achieving tactical surprise in the air—were clearly referred to in the remnants of the captured documents and remained unchanged.15Nor was there any shifting of forces from north to south. All that had changed was the direction of maneuver. Two of the three elements that were indispensable to the German success in 1940—the surprise airborne seizures of bridges and crossings and the equally surprising air onslaught—were thus firmly in place long before von Manstein's fabled visit to Hitler on February 17,1940, when—in the popular retelling of the story—he was able to convince Hitler to make great changes to the plan.
Nor was there anything particularly revolutionary about the shift. Since Frederick the Great, German commanders had always preferred oblique maneuvers that would trap and surround the enemy, and it had been this same sort of maneuver, albeit on a grander scale, which von Moltke the Younger (and Ludendorff, his operations chief) had planned for August 1914. Even Hitler could understand this, and even von Manstein's immediate superior had grasped it, as had the senior German planners: It was one of those obvious ideas simply waiting to be discovered.
The chief objection to it, which was made by German generals at the time, had nothing much to do with the idea that an armored thrust through the Belgian Ardennes would be difficult if not impossible, owing to the terrain. The objection was that the new plan required a German advance in which the entire left flank would be liable to interception by French forces moving up into the Ardennes and Luxem-
bourg. Nor could these forces easily be stopped, as they would be shielded by the Maginot Line.
Then there was the question of airpower. Mechanized columns, when stretched out along a two-lane road, of necessity went on for tens of kilometers. There were excellent roads running through the Ardennes into France, but those roads had far too many places where armored columns would be exposed and unable to find any cover. It was easy to prophesy a true disaster in which the armored units were decimated from the air, trapped on roads with no easy escape, and then attacked piecemeal by French and Belgian troops well supplied with antitank guns and backed by heavy artillery.
Then too, the outcome of this gamble depended on speed: The Germans had to cross the Meuse and start moving up toward the English Channel before the French, attacking from three sides, could cut them off and annihilate them. Because, as the German command was gloomily aware, the French were hardly going to camp out along the frontier and wait to be attacked.
The Allied Plan
The French had always known that the only effective military strategy in a Franco-German conflictwas an advance through Belgium. Joffre had proposed this before 1914, and had been overruled on political grounds: The government was concerned that news of such a plan might in fact force Belgium into the German camp. The construction of the CORF defenses considerably reduced the chances of a successful German attack anywhere to the east of Sedan (technically, east of Carignan, a small town about forty kilometers east of Sedan).
As the expected German attacks failed to materialize, Gamelin, the French commander, began to consider more seriously the idea of an advance into Belgium, so that the Allies could meet the advancing Germans head-on. Accordingly, on March 20,1940, he gave a supplementary set of orders that envisioned a broad-based Allied thrust into Belgium. Subsequently known as the Dyle Plan, since it contemplated an advance to the river Dyle in Belgium, Gamelin's strategy was subsequently ridiculed by analysts, but this was to create scapegoats with the benefit of hindsight.
All Gamelin was proposing was the sensible idea that the Allies could travel the one hundred kilometers or so they needed to cover to get to the Dyle faster than the Germans could fight their way across the same distance. In September observers had spoken with admiration of the rapid German advance in Poland, but it had taken them four or five days to make a serious penetration, and the Poles, as we have seen, had nothing to compare with the Allies in terms of frontier fortifications, air-power, armor, and antitank weapons.
There were other considerations as well. The Belgian army—and the defenses it manned—was a powerful force. In 1914 Belgium, trusting that its neutrality would protect it, had had a small army (and its defenses consisted almost exclusively of fortifications around Namur, Liege, and Antwerp). It was, as Belgian experts admitted after the war, extremely small for a country of Belgium's size, and poorly equipped. In the 1930s the Belgians had realized the folly of this approach, and had raised and trained a surprisingly large military. Its purpose was purely defensive, but in 1940 Belgian troops were well armed with modern weapons, and heavily mechanized. Although Belgium had only about three hundred armored vehicles, light tanks derived from British or French models, its army was highly mechanized, and the towed 47-millimeter antitank gun, a Belgian derivation of the high-velocity French gun, was a formidable weapon.16
Finland had shown what a determined citizen army could do, even without much support, so the idea that Belgium's six-hundred-thousand-man army could, if supported promptly by the Allies, give a good account of itself was quite sound. Moreover, at the same time, the Belgians had built what may fairly be regarded as the largest fort in the world. Called Eben Emael, it dominated the Meuse River crossings in the northeast tip of the country, where, in a sort of geopolitical anomaly, a strip of the Netherlands hung down between Germany and Belgium (the Maastricht Appendage).
In August 1914 the Germans, respecting the neutrality of the Netherlands, had eschewed trying to cross this section of Dutch territory, and instead had attacked the fortifications around Liege. Although the heroic defenses of the Liege forts soon passed into the mythology of the First World War, in reality advancing German troops had gone around the neutralized fortifications on both sides of the city and crossed the Meuse River at Sedan on August 23,1914.
The Belgians had learned from those experiences, and Eben Emael 106
was built in a place where it not only blocked the way for troops violating the Maastricht Appendage but dominated the newly renovated and expanded circle of Liege forts. Gamelin's belief that he could get to the Dyle before the Germans crossed it was hardly a delusion.
So Gamelin's plan envisioned a front along the Dyle held by a mixture of forces. The French Seventh Army would advance toward Antwerp, their left flank on the Channel, in an attempt to link up with the Dutch defenders. Gamelin realized that prompt support of the invaded neutrals was a political necessity. The Allied pattern of making promises and then standing by impotently had to be broken.
He had another reason as well. In the fall of 1914 the Allies had failed to block the German advance along the coast: The Germans had laid siege to Antwerp and taken it (in early October) along with the main Channel ports, which promptly became a thorn in the side of the Allies, as German submarines based there began to attack Allied shipping. The Allied command had recognized—too late—the importance of this strip of territory, and Gamelin, quite sensibly, wanted to make sure it wasn't abandoned as it had been in the previous war.
The boundary of the Seventh Army stopped south of Antwerp. Between Antwerp and Louvain the front would be held by the Belgians themselves. The BEF would hold the section from Louvain to Wavre, and from Wavre to Namur the front would be held by the French First Army. From Namur on down it would be held by the Second and Ninth Armies. This scheme gave the BEF only about twenty kilometers of the projected front, but that would make it easier for the BEF to expand northward and take up sections of the Belgian-held front.
All this was of course hypothetical. Gamelin was laboring under a double disadvantage. On the one hand no one really knew when the Germans would attack, or if they really would (recall the number of postponements since October 1939). On the other Belgium and the Netherlands had become increasingly neutral after 1938. Both countries distrusted Allied intentions and were doubtful of the value of any Allied commitment. To the failure to save Poland or Finland was now added the clear intention of violating Norwegian neutrality. And the Belgians, in particular, were understandably testy. The country had been ravaged in the First World War; the Belgians, with a good deal of justice, spoke of theirs as the country most affected by the horrors of that war. And to what end? By the 1930s a good many Belgians looked back on August 1914 and wondered if their country had not perhaps made a mistake.17 107
Would not its suffering have been less had it simply let Germany have the passage through that it demanded?
Clearly this was not a question to which there was an easy answer. But regardless of how it was answered, the fact of it being raised meant that Belgium was not simply going to be backed into a corner where it was forced to cooperate with the Allies. Nor was the Netherlands, which had been neutral in the previous war.
Both the British and the French subsequently used this to blame the two countries: Had they allied themselves with Great Britain and France, May 1940 would have turned out differently, the claim goes. Their neutrality was a foolish safeguarding of privilege, an act of denial in the face of a common enemy.
But this is nonsense. The Belgians and the Dutch managed to let the Allies know what their defensive plans were, and made no secret of the fact that if they were attacked, they would call on the Allies for aid and welcome their troops. Nor was Belgium on a different planet. It was right next door, and Allied officers had months to visit it, study the terrain, familiarize themselves with it, and plan their dispositions accordingly. As we shall see, they did nothing of the sort. Nor is there any evidence of local commanders trying to make contact with their opposite numbers in the Belgian army to establish an informal understanding.
The clearest evidence of this systemic failure on the Allied side would come in the opening days of the war, and it is a devastating indictment. In August 1914 German infantry had marched down the Meuse Valley and through the Belgian Ardennes, breaking into France along a broad front running roughly from Montmedy past Charleville-Méziéres. Their advance had been successful because they had defeated the French forces sent into Belgium to counter this advance, notably at a battle outside the small Belgian town of Rossignol, where the Colonial Infantry, some of the best troops France possessed in 1914, had been virtually annihilated by their opponents.
Anyone studying that portion of southern Belgium to the north of this section of the French frontier quickly discovers that there is a marvelous natural defensive position defined by the Semois River. The French section of the Meuse, as it meanders in a northwesterly direction south of the Franco-Belgian frontier, is in the center of an extremely broad riverine valley. At Sedan, for instance, it is a good six or seven kilometers wide, and the high ground on the northern side slopes gently down into the valley.
But the Semois Valley is a different affair entirely. On the south side the ground rises abruptly, in some cases forming almost vertical bluffs. Both sides are thickly forested, and in the late spring the riverbanks form a sort of moat in many places. It was this that had led Pétain to conclude that military operations out of the Ardennes were impossible for the Germans: All the French had to do was move across the frontier and establish a defensive line on the southern side of the river. And it was probably this basic geographical knowledge that led several senior German officers in the spring of 1940 to opine that the German attack would never even get to the Meuse. Once the handful of bridges across the river were destroyed, it was in most cases unfordable with the bridging equipment German Pioniere, or combat engineers, possessed. But the French officers stayed resolutely in France. When the offensive began they would opt to man their defensive positions on the Meuse, thus giving the German forces the invaluable opportunity to navigate the crossings of the Semois undisturbed.
Nevertheless Gamelin planned to send his troops into Belgium, meet the attacking Germans there, and defeat them, either by holding a line along the river Dyle or by defeating them in the field. Once Germany attacked, the Belgians and the Dutch would want Allied help. Gamelin had great faith in the defensive positions along his right flank, all the way down to the Swiss frontier, and equally great faith in the offensive power of his heavily mechanized and armored forces.
This faith was hardly irrational. In 1940 everyone (still) thought of the British army as a formidable war machine, and in contrast to 1914, the BEF of 1940 was a significant force, four or five times the size of its ancestor, and in the spring, with an armored division as well. Sadly this machine existed only in the mind and on paper. To list its deficiencies in detail is to beat a dead horse, but they were numerous.
It is customary to blame Neville Chamberlain for Great Britain's policies of appeasement, which, everyone agrees, simply empowered and emboldened Hitler. This claim is to a certain extent exaggerated: in 1938 appeasement was a sensible policy and had hardly been discredited; indeed, the fact that it continued as a tendency in the West for a half century or more after the end of the war suggests that it resonated with many intelligent people.
When Chamberlain was chancellor of the exchequer at key periods
in the interwar years, the British, in a frenzy of penury, slashed their defense expenditures to the bone, and what money was allocated went mostly to the RAF. To say that tank development suffered is a gross understatement. Although the British had produced dozens of different models, none of the tanks were any good, and hardly any of them were actually in service.18
By May 1940 the French, as we have seen, had twelve armored divisions, comprising literally thousands of tanks, together with twenty-eight independent battalions of R.35 and H35 tanks." By that same point the British had managed to assemble one armored division, the First, comprising 156 Cruiser tanks and 174 Mark 6 vehicles, 100 Matilda tanks in two independent tank regiments, and another 200 or so Mark 6 tanks distributed among the "cavalry" regiments.20
Like the Germans and the French, the British were still thinking about how to deploy armor, so in addition to separate cavalry regiments equipped with light tanks, there were two independent tank regiments equipped with "infantry" tanks, which in 1940 meant a vehicle known as the Matilda, owing to its ungainly waddling movement. The Matilda 2 was a massive vehicle weighing about 27,000 kilograms and armed with a two pounder gun. It was decently armored, and certainly the best tank the British had. The problem was that production was late starting (in September 1939 there were only two of them) and plagued by mechanical problems. In France the BEF had far too few of them to make much of a difference on the battlefield, although the combination of thick armor and a hard-hitting gun gave the Germans some nasty shocks in late May.
Although in retrospect the British tank industry was foundering (post-Dunkirk the British army relied almost totally on American tanks), in 1940 the British tank force was not really any worse than the German, and in several respects the BEF was much better equipped: Its artillery was all mechanized, and its infantry traveled by truck and personnel carrier.
Curiously, given its subsequent reputation, the German army of 1940 was the least mechanized army in the field. Outside of the handfuls of mechanized and armored divisions, the Germans were still heavily dependent on horses. Gamelin's belief that his motorized armies could cross Belgium faster than their horsedrawn and foot-powered adversaries was hardly irrational. And, as we shall see, he was right: the Allied defeat didn't have much to do with mechanization or armor, or even combat.
Another Failure of Airpower
In one area, however, Great Britain was formidably equipped. During the 1930s the Royal Air Force had been the only branch of the military funded to anything like the proper level, and, as we have noted, in 1937 it was widely regarded as the largest of the world's air forces. Its core consisted of two separate divisions, Bomber Command and Fighter Command. The travails of Bomber Command in the fall of 1939 have already been noted. But, as our discussion made quite clear, the general failure of the RAF's strategic-bombing campaigns was a systemic failure inherent in the ideas of the airpower strategists. It was not a uniquely British failure.
Besides, the projected battlefield (the Netherlands, Belgium, and northeastern France) was well within operating range of Bomber Command's long-range bombers. Moreover Great Britain possessed a large force of what in 1940 were called light bombers, planes that, properly speaking, we would now term tactical ground-attack aircraft, that is, planes whose primary mission would be the destruction of enemy ground forces as they moved up onto the battlefield. In anticipation of this, the RAF had moved a sizable advance force into France, where they would be operating out of airfields close to the actual combat zone.
Although Douhet had insisted that such planes were a waste of effort, the airpower strategists and planners of the 1920s and 1930s had, sensibly enough, ignored this part of his theories. Like the Germans, the French and the British both had a fleet of ground attack aircraft and the fighter planes to give them support. The situation the Luftwaffe would face in Western Europe would be nothing like the situation in Poland. The French air force was deficient in strategic bombers, but then so was the Luftwaffe. But France had a large and modern force of fighters and ground-attack aircraft.
This last may come as a surprise to the reader, since it is virtually an article of faith that in 1940 France went to war with a collection of antiques. As the one air force specialist who has investigated the matter seriously has concluded, the French air force was made the scapegoat for the political and military failures the country suffered. Briefly, the French had "produced enough modern combat aircraft (4,360) by May 1940 to defeat the Luftwaffe, which fielded a force of 3.270."21And this does not 111
count the British air forces stationed in France, comprising a formidable group of modern fighter planes and light bombers.
There was however one clear area where the Allied air forces were greatly inferior to the German. In German doctrine the air mission was totally subordinated to the ground campaign. Air fleets were attached to the army commands, their mission to support the ground offensives, and to that end the Germans had a well-articulated and -defined system of liaison with the ground troops, with air force personnel operating in conjunction with their army counterparts at very low unit levels.
This was a radically new idea, and a complicated one to execute. In Poland there had been more than a few problems: The leading complaint of the army was that its forward units had been attacked by their own planes far too often. But experience, in the German army at least, was a good teacher, and by May 1940 there had been numerous improvements to the coordination efforts.
Last but hardly least the Germans had achieved a remarkable integration of tactical air defense systems. They had done so by the simple expedient of letting air defense be handled by Luftwaffe personnel who operated alongside the ground units. This of course was a total denial of one of Douhet's basic ideas—that the bomber would always get through—and a total rejection of another even more fashionable belief, which was that a nation's air force was a separate branch of the military operating independently of the army.
This was, then, the one clear area where the two sides were asymmetrical. The RAF and its French equivalent were left to devise their own plan of action, and as the plaintive cry of General Pownall makes clear, they did so without paying much attention to what the ground forces were planning to do. When the fighting started, the air forces would conduct their own war in their own way.
This was the real recipe for disaster, and it had nothing to do with armor or a defensive mentality, or even the poor state of the BEF or the independence of the neutrals. Put simply, the British and French air forces had no understanding of the most important aspect of the German plan: the surprise attack from the air, aimed at giving the Germans mastery over the battlefield.
As we now know, in campaigns such as these, the air war is basically lost or won in the initial hours of battle. The attacker who obtains air superiority in those first forty-eight hours (or so) is likely to keep it, even if the other side possesses more planes. This had happened in
Poland. As we have seen, the Germans did not, as was claimed at the time, destroy the Polish air force on the ground in its initial attacks. But by not putting up their entire air force immediately to counter the Luftwaffe, the Poles lost the war in the air, and their air force was then destroyed piecemeal.
Neither the French nor the British had absorbed this lesson. Instead they envisioned a more leisurely conflict in which great fleets of planes would clash in the air, and the bombers would always get through. Consequently, although the Luftwaffe's losses were so heavy that by June 1940 the French actually had more planes than the Germans, the Allies were never able to recover from the effects of the initial twenty-four hours of air attack. In a famous dictum, Von Clausewitz had observed that mistakes in the initial disposition of forces were difficult if not impossible to overcome. Nowhere was this more true than in the air, and at no place was it more true than France and Belgium in 1940.
1. As quoted by Martin S. Alexander in "Fighting to the Last Frenchman," in Joel Blatt, ed., The French Defeat of 1940:Reassessments (Oxford, England: Berghan, 1998), 300.
2. Brian Bond, Britain, France, and Belgium (London: Brassey's, 1990), 48.
3. Initially Chamberlain claimed that the expedition had inflicted severe losses on the Germans: "If we had losses, the Germans had far heavier losses," Chamberlain told the House on May 7, 1940; but not even Derry, the official British historian for this campaign, can swallow this claim, and recites army casualties as 3,734 (1,869 British, 530 French and Polish, and 1,335 Norwegian), while German casualties are given as 5,296. Data and Chamberlain quote taken from Thomas Kingston Derry, The Campaign in Norway (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1952), 229-30.
4. To the extent that in his excellent discussion of the Norway disaster, Francois Kersaudy entitles his chapter on the early discussions "Churchill's Solitary Crusade": Norway 1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 13-37.
5. Kersaudy cites the relevant documents (ibid., 15). In all the discussions it appears that no one has ever bothered to find out what the actual situation was, even though the figures have been available since 1945. In the three years preceding the start of the war, German iron ore imports averaged 20,339 metric tons, contrasted with the British estimate of 11 million tons. During that same period 8,774 metric tons were imported from Sweden. So although the British were roughly correct in their estimation of the tonnage
exported from Sweden, the conclusion they drew was completely wrong: only 43 percent of Germany's iron ore needs were met by the Swedish imports. Data taken from U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, Strategic Bombing, table 67,247, which in turn references the relevant German documents obtained by Allied investigators.
6. The quote is from Trotter, Frozen Hell, 237, who has the best brief summary of what was going on. The most comprehensive account is in Kersaudy, Norway, 89. There are drastically different accounts from the British side—for example, Bond, Britain, France, and Belgium, 48-50; and Roy Douglas, The Advent of War, 1939-40 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978), 59-91. Despite its title, Donald Cameron Watt, How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War (New York: Pantheon, 1989), devotes only 4 or 5 pages to Finland (out of 624 pages of text) and Norway isn't even listed in the index - but then these are not the happiest incidents in British affairs. Watt's main purpose is to whitewash the British government's actions during this period, and, given the facts, suppression is the best defense.
7. The Ironside Diaries, eds. Roderick Macleod and Dennis Kelly (New York: David McKay, 1963), 215.Trotter, Frozen Hell, 239, uses this same quote.
8. "Disdainful," the Norwegian foreign minister was quoted as saying: "the language of a sovereign to a vassal." As quoted by, among many others (this is a memorable quote), Kersaudy, Norway, 61.
9. As quoted by Douglas, Advent of War, 103. An earlier reaction from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, also in Douglas, is notable: "I should have thought that the British Government had the fate of a sufficient number of smaller states on their conscience as
it was" (86).
10. As quoted by Walter Warlimont,Inside Hitler's Headquarters, trans. R. H. Barry (Novato, Calif.: Presidio, 1964), 68.Warlimont's account, although curiously organized, is clear enough on the essentials, and is greatly to be preferred to more recent narratives, for example, Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945:Nemesis (New York: Norton, 2000), 287-89, 293.
11. See the analysis in Derry, The Norway Campaign, 231—32, who has to fall back on the argument that these losses deprived the Germans of forces they would otherwise have used in the invasion of Great Britain. True, but as there is little evidence to suggest Hitler ever seriously planned such an invasion, the point is moot. Kersaudy demolishes the various arguments neatly enough, concluding by pointing out that the British most
emphatically did not learn from their mistakes in Norway (ibid., 225-27).
12. As recorded by Bond, Britain, France, and Belgium, 50. Earlier, in March, Pownall had deplored the fact that his projected ten-division BEF in France would be reduced by three divisions: The Fifth Division was being withdrawn and the Forty-second and Forty-fourth divisions wouldn't even arrive. And now, in April, he listed key areas - particularly antiaircraft - he was being stripped of or not sent.