Opportunity lost, and the Battle of France

By: Kerry Anderson

I know most of the readers are familiar with the battle of France but allow me to bore you with a quick rehash for the benefit of others.

On the 10th of May, 1940 the phony war came to an end. The French battle plan relied on a string of well-developed fixed fortifications ( the Maginot Line ), which ran along the Southern part of the border with Germany and then kind of petered out in the Verdun sector. Due to various reasons, primarily underground water, industrial development in the area, and lack of public support for its extension, the line was never completed. The solution was two large army groups covering the northern sector, and a third (Ninth Army) acting as the hinge between the North and South.

The original doctrine was to wait until Germany’s intentions were clear before committing to any action. Ignoring their own plan, as well as Intelligence reports of a 60 mile long military traffic jam extending from Luxembourg back into Germany, they moved the two Northern groups forward to fight the battle off of French soil, before 9th Army could occupy its forward positions. In retrospect, it does seem quite careless of them not to have them all in prepared positions well stocked with supplies.They certainly had plenty of time to do this.

Many personal accounts from the infantry noted that the lack of antitank and anti-air weapons limited their ability to engage the Panzer columns, even when they held favorable positions. On paper, the French army should have been more than a match for the Germans. Their Char-B tank with its 3″ of frontal armor was impervious to the light guns of the Panzer 3, but they were dispersed and not able to concentrate where needed. The lighter armed and armored German tanks were able to overcome them due to their training, radio control, five-man crews, and concentration.

They also had some help from a game changing weapon developed in secret. The 88 mm cannon was a dual purpose AA and AT gun that featured a very high velocity and flat trajectory. It could penetrate 8″ of steel at 2000 yards. Luckily for the French tank crews, (well at least some of them) the land target gun sight was not installed in time for the battle. To their credit many French officers had lobbied for such mobile forces. Unfortunately their efforts fell on deaf ears.

By the 3rd day, forward units of army group B, (the German left) had reached the Meuse, (the last real natural barrier), and were trying to force a crossing. On May 16th, the French, realizing the growing danger to their right flank ordered a general retreat. But large armies don’t turn on a dime and they were basically all out of position at the critical moment, the Northern group too far forward, and 9th Amy too far back. The German left wing, containing 7 of it’s 10 Panzer divisions were racing down the Meuse River valley towards the English Channel while the infantry divisions following behind them were pouring through the breach. Ninth Army was encircled and destroyed and the Northern group along with the British Expeditionary force were trapped. Most of them however, were able to escape at Dunkirk, minus their weapons.

The Germans then regrouped, Guderian turning South to cut off the Maginot line from behind, while Rommel’s 7th Panzer cut across the Normandy coast to take the French port of Cherbourg. Covering almost 200 miles in 24 hours without air cover, his mad dash set a record which probably still stands today, cementing his reputation as a bold and skillful commander.

With 60 divisions left, France could probably have held out a little longer, but it was now mortally wounded and it was only a matter of time. On June 18 they discussed surrender terms and signed the armistice on the 22nd. The whole affair had lasted 44 days. In England, people were being ordered to turn in their shotguns for the use of their now almost defenseless forces. If Germany had ordered an immediate invasion in July of 1940, no doubt England would have committed all of the home fleet in its defense. But whether this would have worked is an open question. With the U boats and sea mines, the constricted channel might have been a disaster. In any event, an air battle over the channel would have tilted the odds considerably in favor of the Luftwaffe.

One of the most difficult questions to answer is why Germany did not make a more intelligent treaty with France. With its large navy and even more critically its large foreign possessions, it would have made a much better partner for world domination than its Italian girlfriend, notwithstanding Italy’s large navy and empire.

But to fully understand the bigger picture, let us take a closer look at some of the more critical details. Hitler’s smaller but capable forces were useless without oil. And his only large gas station on the continent were the Rumanian fields of Ploesti. But the Ploesti fields were not maintained very well, and in total, would probably not be sufficient in the long run. They were also vulnerable to the three million Russian troops on the border, one million of them on the Prut River, barely a weeks march away.

So what were his other options? Well, there was an obvious answer, the Middle East. Basra was the hub of the Persian fields, more than double the Rumanian production total. And there were others as well. Syria and Palestine being very convenient targets for Germany with refinery capacity to boot. (Note…England immediately invaded the French Syrian area in the summer of 1940.) With the Middle East in German hands, they would be finally free from their biggest constraint.

And that is not all. Cairo was a spur of the African rail system, making it a source for all types of war material including food. And it was also the largest port in North Africa with extensive facilities. England to its credit had organized a group called the Middle East Supply Center. It’s job was to organize local food supplies and shipments. They assisted local food production and even arranged cattle drives. This would free up merchant transport and the food quality would help greatly in the tough North African conditions. So, hat tip to the British on this farsighted approach.

But there was an even bigger bonus for Germany, Basra was Russia’s best warm water port to receive allied supplies. Any Russian invasion would be far more secure with Basra in German hands while choking England of its own oil supplies.

Truth be told, a number of German generals including Rommel and Guderian argued for an immediate invasion of this area in the summer of 1940. So when Hitler said ” my generals know nothing of the economics of war,” this was only a half truth. What he should have said was that the ones he put in the highest positions know nothing of the economics. The more capable ones knew all too well.

But Hitler did not make a very favorable treaty with France. And the reason he gave was that he did not trust them. OK, well, fair enough. But if that was the case, then why make a treaty with them before the country was occupied? Marseille and Toulon were the real gems with their commanding position at the head of the western Mediterranean. They would have made a perfect jumping off location for an invasion of Africa. And they were also close to the Ruhr and Saar, certainly much better than sending material over the Brenner Pass into the maws of the Italian supply system. And taking a more strategic viewpoint. Germany needs operations that make her richer, not just England poorer. And an island with 45 million people is not something that Germany really needs.

Germany would pass on this first great opportunity to instead initiate an air attack on England against the advice of his best generals and strategists. But Hitler would get a second chance to right the situation. In early February, 1941 with over half of the Luftwaffe destroyed in the recent battles, along with many of it’s best trained pilots and aircrews, an opportunity arose. Rommel was still commanding 7th Panzer in France and had finally gotten some well deserved leave. He received orders to cut short his vacation and report immediately to Hitler’s headquarters.

More to come……….

 

 

3 thoughts on “Opportunity lost, and the Battle of France

  1. Only last week I read that General Heinz Guderian disobeyed orders to halt his advance in France FIVE times, the 6th time would have been at Dunkirk but pressure was made to bear on him to comply.
    Perhaps the ashkeNazis wanted a scenario like the First World War?

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    1. Well you are quite correct about them being constantly ordered to stop. This does have some element of plausible deniability though. Due to the panzer divisions being equipped with only limited tracked vehicles they did get pretty strung out. And to be honest many of the senior officers at HQ. didn’t really understand the concept of blitzkrieg or even approve of it. Their experience was limited to WW1 where armies fought pitched battles as they inched their way along. ( hey we don’t just bypass strongpoints in this heer army ) ! what do you all think you are doing? No doubt these stop orders had major consequences. But I can imagine the consternation of Senior officers back at HQ where they could not see the effect of surprise firsthand. Sure, a calculated risk. But bagging a whole division without firing a shot as the tanks popped up over a ridge and ordered a whole division on a roadway ( sitting ducks ) to surrender was far more preferable to the ground commanders.

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