Evaluation: Ernest May, Strange Victory

I’ve just been reading Ernest May’s Strange Victory – Hitler’s Conquest of France, which I was recommended in this thread at Abu Muqawama.

Strange Victory‘s main point is that everything you think you know about the German invasion of France in 1940 is wrong. The French (and British) armies weren’t catastrophically ill-equipped for modern war; the French tank park was almost a third bigger than that of Germany, and the advantage was concentrated in the newer and heavier types – the French had many more Somua S35s and Renault B1s than the Germans had Panzer III and IVs. In terms of quality, the B1 and the British Matilda were the heaviest tanks either side deployed; the S-35 was probably the best all-round tank on the battlefield. The French Army’s historic strength, its artillery, disposed of a huge advantage in big guns.

Similarly, there is no reason to believe that French morale was particularly poor, or worse than that of the Germans. Where they had the opportunity to fight, the French fought; in the Gembloux gap in Belgium, Rene Prioulx’s French Cavalry Corps – actually, a pair of armoured divisions – fought the 3rd and 4th Panzers for four days, covering the First Army’s move up to the Dyle line. They lost 105 tanks to 160 for the Germans; some German accounts suggest that had they kept going, rather than breaking off the engagement once the main force was in place, the whole German front in the north might have collapsed. On the other side of Antwerp, the 9th Panzers ran into another French armoured division, and this time lost another hundred tanks for the loss of five French. May quotes a German cavalryman’s account of their horses screaming in terror as French tanks surged towards their lines, a reversal of every traditional account of 1940.

Even the hapless 9th Army in the Ardennes, May argues, did better than might have been reasonably expected; it was made up of the bits and pieces of the French Army, with a high concentration of the oldest reservists and youngest conscripts, the last pick of equipment, a lot of ageing dug-out officers, and sent to guard a front no-one expected to be important, where it met the very best the Germans had to offer. May argues that it was no worse than the German forces facing the Maginot Line in Army Group C, or the Leeb Museum as the troops called it after its commander and the quality of its equipment. Had they been facing a concentrated attack by Prioulx’s tanks, they might have been routed as the 9th French Army was.

So what happened? How did the Allies end up with the best of their armies, and the whole of their mobile forces, successfully defending positions two hundred miles from the German schwerpunkt? May begins at the beginning, examining the German and French planning processes. It is a commonplace that the Allies did exactly what the Germans were hoping they would. Up until the early spring of 1940, however, the German army was planning to do exactly what the French were hoping they would – to commit their forces to a westwards push across Belgium and southern Holland, something like the Schlieffen plan of 1914.

The Allies planned to counter this with a left-flanking manoeuvre pivoting on the Ardennes, rolling the motorised 1st and 7th French Armies and the British Army, including three French armoured divisions and a British tank brigade, onto a river line running half-way across Belgium. This would provide a shorter line and defence in depth, and would concentrate the Allied strike force directly opposite the Germans’. This was roughly the plan – plan D – that they put into effect on the 10th of May, 1940.

The Germans were never satisfied with their plan; it was obvious to both sides that Germany could only lose a long war, as Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction recently bore out. And the General Staff plan for the Western Front didn’t offer much chance of a decisive victory. Germany needed a battle that would transform its strategic position. May describes the emergence of the final plan, which moved the main attack from the area around Liege to the southern Ardennes, as a collective product, pointing out that the first person to call it the Manstein plan was von Manstein. He certainly did have a major influence on it, lobbying against the original plan until he was transferred away from Army Group A headquarters to shut him up. But so did many others.

Hitler correctly realised that the original plan wouldn’t do. But he also offered his own inimitable negative contribution – why not decide not to decide where the main attack should go in, and make the decision on the night? Eventually, the debate was settled by a string of major war-games designed to test the three competing proposals. As it turned out, the original plan usually delivered stalemate in Flanders, and occasionally, defeat. Hitler’s proposal reliably resulted in failure, varying between mere fiasco and the French conquest of the Ruhr. The Group A plan usually worked.

That the war games were an accurate simulation was the work of the General Staff intelligence branch, Foreign Armies (West), led by General Tippelskirch, with Colonel Liss in charge of the French desk. One of the duties of this office was to act as the enemy commander during war games. The French and German intelligence services were radically different; France had invested hugely in intelligence collection, with formidable capabilities in photo-reconnaissance, electronic intelligence, and agent-running. Germany, short of cash, was also short of information; however, the Germans had compensated by concentrating on analysis. Tippelskirch’s staff spent most of their time studying what would now be called foreign doctrine – how potential enemies thought about war, how they trained for it, and how they made decisions.

Their conclusions about France was that the French Army relied heavily on centralised command and control, which was implemented through staff procedures that generated extremely detailed written orders and reports. Also, the French communications system was much more effective vertically than it was horizontally – in the name of security, landlines and dispatch riders linking major headquarters were preferred to radio, which meant that French army units had to have very detailed instructions in order to coordinate with their neighbours. One of the few clear technological advantages the Germans had over the French was their Enigma-encrypted mobile radio network – which they had developed to support their own concept of Auftragstaktik.

Therefore, they proposed that the greatest weakness of the French Army would be in responding to unforeseen events. Whatever the final plan would be, it could only succeed by forcing the French to abandon their own plan; if they got to execute their own plans, they would win. When Tippelkirch and Liss got in character for their parts as French generals, they played them as men trapped by their own thoroughness.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to design a plan that would confront the French with an unexpected crisis and force them to abandon their own plans. It had to stay unexpected. French intelligence certainly had the data to find out what the Germans were planning; they identified most of the Panzer divisions from aerial photos and radio intercepts, discovered that two of the four major supply depots in the Western theatre of war were located in the Eifel, just across the border from the Ardennes sector, and analysed German aerial reconnaissance overflights statistically, showing that they were concentrating on a rectangular zone behind the Ardennes and leading towards the coast. They interrogated a shot-down reconnaissance pilot and got him to spill the beans on his targets, which all lay in this area. All this data was written up in careful summaries and delivered to the commander in chief, mixed with a vast quantity of noise and German disinformation.

But the French understanding of intelligence specifically barred intelligence officers from commenting on the content of their reports; rather like traditional journalists, they were not supposed to editorialise or speculate. Judgment about the enemy’s intentions was left to the commander; detailed planning was left to the operations branch. The very quantity of data that the Deuxieme Bureau delivered to Gamelin, Georges, and the rest every day meant that nobody was asking questions about its meaning. As the Germans installed extra railway sidings and temporary bridges in the Mosel valley, put in more telephone lines, and cleared parking space next to the roads leading towards Luxembourg, the French general staff was drowning in reports, endlessly revising the detailed plan for the move into Belgium, and creating an entirely new and ambiguous headquarters shoehorned between the General Staff, the Northern Front, and the Commander in Chief.

One book that doesn’t come out of this well is Alistair Horne’s To Lose a Battle: France 1940. May is scrupulously courteous to Horne, and credits him with providing the definitive account of combat in 1940, but it’s impossible not to revise your opinion of Horne as a result of this book.

For example, Horne doesn’t mention that the French divisions cuirassees, whose role as part of the strategic reserve he discusses at length, weren’t actually armoured divisions in the sense of a unit equivalent to a Panzer division. Rather, they were more like a British Army Tank brigade, a force made up of heavy, slow-moving tanks intended to lead a set piece assault on a fixed front. French doctrine foresaw that they would break through the enemy lines, and then let the “light mechanised division”, which had as many tanks as a Panzer division, pass through and exploit the breach. The DC would move back into reserve and put its vehicles back in order.

As a result, they didn’t have the mobile logistics or supporting arms of an armoured division and couldn’t manoeuvre like one, no matter what the high command wanted of them. This – not specific French incompetence or cowardice or Communist infiltration – explains why they were frequently in the wrong place, and why the 2nd DC could be caught with its tanks on one side of Rommel’s 7th Panzers and its soft-skinned vehicles, including all the fuel, on the other. It is true that the French never succeeded in using the three DCs effectively. It is also true that their tanks simply had to move to the battlefield by rail.

And there is far too much national-character stuff in Horne. May takes a much harder line with himself on this. Also, he is more able to recognise that a lot of postwar Gaullist writers wrote the way they did because they were politically on the Right and in the grip of the prejudices of the pre-war era. There is simply too much cheap frogbashing in the world to add to it. You can often hear the effort being made to resist it in Horne’s prose, but too much leaks through.

This story has a sort of tragic duality. The Germans won because they had been able to plan more like a democracy than democratic France or Britain – they constantly questioned their assumptions, criticised superiors, and threw out bad ideas – but they would never do so again, precisely because of their triumph over France. Hitler rapidly convinced himself it was all his own work, and the independent authority of the army was permanently destroyed. The technology – tanks, close air support, and mobile radio – and the doctrine of Blitzkrieg had been validated. Many people concluded that fascism itself had also been validated – they had seen the future, and it worked. The prestige of the Nazi Party and of Hitler rose to a degree that finally saw off any hope that the military would depose him; at the same time, the generals were faced with the possibility that Germany had a combination of technology and operational art that might actually win. Between Hitler’s triumph, and their new status as potential world conquerors, the generals’ opposition to Nazism faded, and any hope of limiting the damage went with it.

21 thoughts on “Evaluation: Ernest May, Strange Victory

  1. I’m a bit nonplussed.

    As I understood, the concensus regarding the German defeat of the Western Allies in 1940 was that the new doctrine of Blitzkreig led to German victory.

    The Allies were using the wrong tactics.

    The description of the book doesn’t seem to contract this at all, but the review starts with “everything thought about the cause of defeat is wrong”.

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  3. Good review, particularly the conclusion. As a Frenchman, a European and human being: 1940 truly was a catastrophe! See David Reynolds’ classic essay on the Fall of France being “the Fulcrum of the 20th Century”.

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  5. Actually the Germans probably overestimated the French fighting strength – weakened by overall numerical inferiority as well as the tactical, doctrinal and logistical problems noted in the book. Avalon Hill put our a simulation game that had the German’s almost always winning in the tactical sense, even if you removed a lot of their armored units! An important thing in mechanized warfare is the ability to repair and return tanks to the front. While the German forces were bad at this, the French and Brits were abysmal: the wastage from breakdowns in the advancing french units were appalling, and may have accounted for their unwillingness to exploit openings in the German positions.

    The most important part of these books is to show that courage was never really the issue: leadership and doctrine were.

  6. ‘Many people concluded that fascism itself had also been validated – they had seen the future, and it worked.”

    This particular part of the story/war always intrigues me.

  7. I think Len Deighton in “Blitzkrieg” makes the point that it’s very difficult, now, for us to think ourselves into the 1940 state of mind, when France was a major military power and its frontiers were almost inviolable.
    And various people have pointed out that the French right wing were happy to see the defeat not as the defeat of France but of the decadent, leftish, ineffectual Third Republic – whence Vichy.

  8. One of the few clear technological advantages the Germans had over the French was their Enigma-encrypted mobile radio network – which they had developed to support their own concept of Auftragstaktik.

    Personally, I’ve always thought that the other clear advantage they had were three-man turrets for the Pzs Mk III & IV, which allowed for a separate commander, gunner and loader in each tank, compared to the one man turret that was the norm for French tanks. This seems to explain a lot about how the Germans managed to overcome the ostensible technical limitations on their tanks on such matters as armour, gun size, etc.

    (Interestingly, one of the few adaptations made to the Czech tanks taken over after the absorption of Czechoslovakia was to reconfigure the turret layout to allow a loader. )

  9. (The obvious caveat about how rare tank-on-tank combat was in 1940 should be made, but the advantages of being able to maintain situational awareness in a combat situation without being distracted by the mechanical business of loading and firing a cannon at the same time should be obvious.)

  10. World War 2 shouldn’t never had happened if logic prevailed.
    After Hitler WW2 only happened due to by France rotten society marked by pacifism: Let’s declare war to Germany, but let them destroy Poland and even let a “phoney war” occur to let Germans lick their wounds from Polish campaign and correct mistakes. Sadly they didn’t had a G.W. Bush.

    In numbers Germany would never won against French alone, worse, allies still had the BEF. But Germans had a functional Command and Control doutrine with integrated close air support. Germans kept moving the French couldn’t catch up. Typical Boyd OODA loop http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OODA_loop

    But that doesn’t explains everything, French could have resisted much more time, they had weapons, resources but the dysfunctional French society- too pacifist, too nihilist, too stiff or in one word a society in denial to let facts show – made the rest.

    I don’t understand why you rate Democracies with overall “questioned their assumptions, criticised superiors, and threw out bad ideas”.European History is made mostly by Dictatorships.

  11. Well, the comment above proves there’s at least one person still taking the Vichy line, it would seem. And bringing positively Vichy-style levels of intelligence and understanding to the party.

    As for May, I like the (few) bits I’ve read. Certainly, every campaign produces enough examples of cock-up and incompetence to fill several books: the losers look for them, the victors ignore them. Once in while you get revisionist works pointing out the mistakes of the victors (Dizzy Allen’s _Who Won the Battle of Britain?_ is one such), but generally these don’t sell so well. France was defeated on the strategic level, but owing to the fundamental attribution fallacy, every other aspect of the defeat is often dragged in to the ‘explanation’.

    I was in the Marc Bloch room at the Sorbonne last year – there’s a plaque on the wall pointing out that he was ‘Tue par les Allemands’, which is not as Jean Monnet as I’ve come to expect.

  12. every campaign produces enough examples of cock-up and incompetence to fill several books: the losers look for them, the victors ignore them

    Yes, absolutely. “The gap between victory and defeat is often no wider than a sabre’s blade. Win – and the public will forget all about the rotten food, and the shoddy boots, and the ambulances that never came. Lose – and they’ll talk of nothing else.” (Flashman at the Charge.)

  13. “Well, the comment above proves there’s at least one person still taking the Vichy line, it would seem. And bringing positively Vichy-style levels of intelligence and understanding to the party.”

    Seems you don’t know a thing about WW2. That is why you resorted to ad hominem. If i wrote that Italian Military Fascist Government saved Jews when occupied Nizza and resisted German pressure while Vichy Government willingly sent them to the ovens , then you would probably call me Fascist… that is your level.
    A caricature level.

  14. LL, would that be the same kind of caricature that called France in 1939 / 40 ‘a rotten society marked by pacifism’, or some other kind of caricature?

    Ajay – bingo. I should have also mentioned G M Fraser’s brilliant war memoir ‘Quartered Safe Out Here’, which is an excellent example of the ‘War is shit, even when you’re winning’ genre.

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  18. Liked the review but when i read about Prioux and the gembloux gap with 160 panzers destroyed by the French to 105 i have to wonder how many were mark 1&11 pzkw as we know the 3&4 were concentrated in AOK A (not all i know) and in the North the opposing forces both gained what they had set out to/

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  20. Adam Tooze Page 373, “In retrospect, it suited neither the Allies nor the Germans to expose the amazingly haphazard course through which the Wehrmacht had arrived at its most brilliant military success. The myth of the Blitzkrieg suited the British and French because it provided an explanation other than military incompetence for their pitiful defeat. But whereas it suited the Allies to stress the alleged superiority of German equipment, Germany’s own propaganda viewed the Blitzkrieg in less materialistic terms.”

    To attack the British and French was foolish in 1940, but Hitler was a wild gambler. The panzer units pushed back the superior British and French armies – the British did not deploy most of their army in France. The defeat was total Allied incompetence.

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