What accounts for the defeat of France in 1940? What factors played the most decisive role in the allied defeat: faulty strategy, inferior technology, numbers,…? Was the fall of France inevitable in 1940?
On 10 May 1940, nearly six months after Hitler gave the original order for his army’s to advance towards France, the Blitzkrieg began. With-in six weeks time France had fallen and the face of the civilized world had suddenly changed. Some believe that the defeat of France was due to a lack of will, low morale and defeatism among politicians, and ineptitude with-in the ranks of the allied military. Other’s feel that it was the German Army’s operational and tactical skill along with superior strategic planning that was responsible for the breakthrough at Sedan and the rapid advance to the coast of the English Channel. It is my opinion though that it was a combination of multiple errors made by the French and endless German luck that enabled the advance of the Germans to go nearly unscathed.
It can be argued that the initial problems leading up to the fall of France can be traced back to 1936 when Belgium, understanding that it had no way of defending itself from a German assault from the north further isolated itself from their southern French allies and declared neutrality in all European affairs. With Belgium’s neutrality declaration regarding all actions in Europe the French military was no longer able to count on a preliminary defense from the northern Belgium Army and had to defend a border that now stretched from the English Channel clear to the Mediterranean. The infamous Maginot Line had already been established along the French-German border just for the purpose of defending against the probable German attack, but to stretch it further west along the Belgium border would stretch the French Armies relatively thin. Though stretching the army out further along this new border line to the north would thin out the French defenses under the command of General Gamelin it would have by no means depleted their ability to defend against a German attack through Belgium.
The first major French failure was that of over centralization and miscalculation. The French had an extremely slow and over centralized Army command structure leading to unnecessary delays in the decision making and planning processes. In addition to delays in the overall planning and decision making processes this high level command manifested a great deal of intelligence gathering miscalculations. The inability of the Allies to effectively employ and decipher any intelligence reports collected prior to and during the German Blitzkrieg allowed the German’s to not only surprise the French with the time, location, and overall plan for the run to France, but it enabled them to walk through nearly unscathed.
Another grievous mistake of the French manifested itself in the pre-war planning process. The French, in a moment of clarity recognized their inability to react quickly to dynamic situations as a result of their command structure. Seeing only three realistic avenues for the Germans to attack from the French military leaders tried unsuccessfully to develop a set of preplanned responses to defend against a German advance. The first plan was to meet the Germans in Belgium. Due to Belgian neutrality this plan was hinged on a rapid movement north only after the German Army’s initial surge into Belgium. This plan was the most highly regarded defense posture as it made perfect sense for Hitler to come down from the north through Belgium. The geography would have given Hitler’s Army several gathering points and an untouched supply line to Germany throughout the entire operation. The second plan dealt with the possibility of the Germans making their main effort in Lorraine against the Maginot Line. Due to the known effectiveness throughout the world of the Maginot Line, the French did not believe that Hitler would risk such an attack. The third plan was never developed due to the apparent absurdity of an attack across the Rhine into Alsace or through the Swiss Mountains. The French only saw one way in and out of this area, no way for the German’s to fortify any ground once it was taken, and there was no significant area available to the Germans to create lateral movement incase of attack due to the mountainous geography. As it turns out this is exactly where the Germans came from. These plans took into account all the French political problems of the time, British fears of impending attack from the Germans against their mainland, and the internationally regarded absurdity of Belgium neutrality. The one thing that none of the plans took into account was the abilities of the German Army, abilities that were displayed earlier in Poland and Finland.
Once the attacks began the slow command structure again reared its head taking too long to react to constantly developing situations in the beginning days of the Blitzkrieg and taking too long to redeploy troops in defense of the flank that was being attacked. Another strategic folly was the inability to attack the German armored divisions stuck in a major traffic jam through the Ardennes once the attacks had begun. The French and British could have attacked the traffic jam through the Ardennes with an aerial assault and effectively destroyed Guderian’s entire western assault, leaving only Rommel’s northern assault to contain. Although this did not happen the French did send two cavalry divisions into the Ardennes to slow down the advance. The cavalry divisions’ ineffectiveness in slowing down the advance even a little bit was a major failure by the French. Without the cavalry slowing down the German front at all the French Army’s leadership were not granted the time they needed to effectively reorganize and redeploy.
In addition to the failure’s of the French to prepare a thorough plan to defend against the possibility of an attack through the Ardennes, and their inability to react and redeploy forces to counter the unexpected German attack route; without the intense planning and execution of German Commanders Heinz Guderian and Erwin Rommel the French may still have defeated the German advance. Not through an all out victory, but through a prolonged battle that would have yielded German casualties that they could not have afforded.
General Guderian was able to get to the River Meuse with three intact armored divisions without having to stop and wait for the rest of the German army. The original plans called for Guderian to attack through the River Meuse with only two divisions and then wait and regroup with the rest of the army. His disobedience of those orders and unbridled advancement against the collapsing French enabled his armored divisions to walk clear to Abbeville and effectively cut off all French and British armies from France. Along with Guderian’s fortune with his disobedient advancement there was also a good bit of German luck involved in the prolonged aerial assaults that softened up the ground in advance of Guderian’s movements. This aerial assault was not supposed to have happened, but the orders to halt the air attacks was intercepted and ultimately never received by the German air head quarters.
A third crucial bit of German fortune occurred five months prior to the initial attack when Majors Reinberger and Hoenmanns were forced to land in Belgium due to bad weather and ended up presenting the initial plans of German attack through Belgium and the Netherlands. As I said above, it was highly regarded by the French and British that an attack by Germany was most likely to come through Belgium. As the French and British analyzed this intelligence they put their best divisions to the north and left their flanks on the Ardennes under the primary protection of the 55th ID reserve units. Although the reserve teams had been there since the September before they were never able to complete any of their defenses. Constantly being used as extra bodies, entire companies of the 55th ID were being pulled off of their primary duties of defense of the Ardennes to fill in elsewhere, ultimately leaving an open flank guarded by a reserve division that had no training and no defined plan for defense. The entire Allied force had their focus set on Belgium, and in the meantime left their flank wide open. When the attacks began the 55th ID went up against the entire German Air Force, three panzer divisions, and the best German Regiments. They had no chance. Again, the reliance on minimal intelligence and an increasing inability of the French military to step back and recognize the deficiencies of their flank resulted in yet another lucky break for the German attack, for as I said earlier any delay in German advancement put up by the French would have most likely resulted in a prolonged war that Hitler would not have been able to afford. On a side note, it appears that throughout the entire campaign let by Guderian, there was only one order from Hitler that he did follow. That was to not attack the British at Dunkirk. This order effectively allowed the British to escape back the Great Britain and in some people’s eyes, though France would fall in the days after, that this move was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s reign in Europe.
I have stated above that there was an abundance of reasons for the fall of France that were avoidable. Had the French employed anything resembling a proper defense plan, they might have defeated the German advance. Had the French correctly employed intelligence gathering and discovered the avenue through which Germany planned to come from they could have employed stronger forces to the Ardennes and the River Meuse. Had the French been able to, despite their arduously slow command structure, effectively react to the initial attack of the German’s and redeployed the proper troops to the battle front and attacked the German line that was without lateral movement or security they could have defeated Germany. Even with all of these simple factors that could have led to French victory there is still one major reason why the fall of France was inevitable.
The French lost because they were decadent. They had not adjusted, mentally or physically, to the new age of mobile and mechanized warfare. It has been well established through history that the French were a powerful military nation during the previous three centuries, and they rested too much faith in the fact that they were regarded as a major military power to deal with and as such were unwilling to accept any changes to their military strategy. In addition to the decadence of the military, the French population was ready to be defeated. They were still tired from the Great War that was fought on their land only 20 years prior. The people were not prepared to face the strains of war on their lands again, and as soon as the German attacks began, French civilians were seen fleeing to the south by the thousands. It was this defeatist attitude of the general populace and the inability of the French military to grow and adjust to the new weapons of war that allowed for the German’s to advance so rapidly through the heart of France and into Paris.