Monday, May 10, 2010

The Campaign in the West, 1940: Fall Gelb

General Erwin Rommel, commander 7th Panzer Division, France May 1940

This is the third in my series of posts commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Second World War. I attempt to provide something of a fresh look at each of these campaigns (Poland, Denmark and now France) from a Clausewitzian perspective. Of the three I have attempted this is surely the most ambitious and the most difficult given its complexity. I have used two references: The first is the current standard work on the campaign, Karl-Heinz Frieser's The Blitzkrieg Legend which is the official German historical study of the campaign. The second is a contemporary French work, Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat which the great historian wrote immediately after the defeat. Whereas Frieser's work has the advantage of 60+ years of historical study behind it and succeeds admirably in separating myth from fact, Bloch's work retains the shock of the event along with the beginnings of some of the very myths that Frieser explains away, while at the same time providing insights only a thoughtful witness could have provided, those of a more timeless quality. I recommend both works.

This post is meant as only an introduction to this subject . . .

To start this post is only about the first operation of the campaign, or rather Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) which was the attack through the Ardennes, the smashing of the "hinge" of the French/Allied defense at Sedan and the pursuit to Abbeville and the coast thus encircling the entire Allied northern front. This of course trigger the evacuation from Dunkirk and the expulsion/escape of the BEF from the continent. The follow-on operation, Fall Rot (Case Red) was to push deep into France and turn the Maginot Line, but the fate of France had already been sealed by what happened between May 10-24 - a period of two weeks.

The German victory over France in 1940 is one of the most decisive victories in military history. The Germans were outnumbered in terms of troops, tanks and aircraft. The quality of some of their equipment - such as the Panzer Mark I & II - were not up to Allied standards. Yet in spite of all this, they were able to decisively defeat a numerically stronger force at the loss 49,000 dead and missing for the entire campaign (that is both Case Yellow and Red) inflicting at the same time about four times as many dead on the Allies. That is the German Army was able - in a relatively short time with acceptable losses - to knock out a major power, occupy it and exploit its economy/possessions for their own purposes.

How was this possible?


Innovation (mated with the emphasis on speed), linked with a high level of moral and material cohesion on the side of the attacker and a correspondingly low level of moral and material cohesion on the side of the defender - that is the political relations between the two sides - are the first items to mention.

Also the proper application of new technology in certain specific instances by the Germans (as in outfitting their tanks with radios), and the lack of the same by the British and French come to mind.

Finally, what is perhaps the deciding factor was contingency, in that certain things happened at certain times allowing for this victory to be achieved. That is the momentum the Germans developed could have been stopped at various chokepoints along the line (a French attack in the Fall of 1939 against the West Wall, the bombing of the German supply chaos in the Ardennes), but were not. Simply along the way, had certain actions taken place or not taken place the eventual outcome of the campaign would have been much different. Chance, and good and bad luck all played a major role.

Frieser argues that Germany had no Blitzkrieg doctrine or operational art at the beginning of the campaign:

The thrust through the Ardennes repeatedly has been cited as a classic example of the tactics to be employed in a blitzkrieg. Interestingly enough, however, the German success was not based on any firm system. von Kielmansegg [assigned as a General Staff officer for supply to the 1st Panzer Division at the time] in this connection speaks of the 'ad hoc improvisation'. The unusual aspect of this event, he feels, is that there was no concept, there had been no 'instructions for use' that could have served as guidance. The important thing was not to translate an as yet undeveloped blitzkrieg strategy into operational-level terms. Instead, the task was to accomplish an extraordinary mission. The latter went like this, 'in three days to the Meuse . . .' All the many extraordinary methods that were resorted to here resulted from this requirement due to the situation. The experiences were analyzed in general staff terms only later and were then turned into an abstract system that propaganda journalism referred to as Blitzkrieg.
The Blitzkrieg Legend, page 137

Frieser goes into some detail to explain the evolution of the "sickle cuts" which were the two offensives (Cases Yellow and Red) (pp 61-93). Originally the German General Staff were resigned to reimplementing the Schlieffen Plan of World War I, which had failed in 1914 for obvious reasons.

The overall feeling in the General Staff was that Germany had not been ready for war in 1939 and that Hitler had led the country into disaster. Franz Halder, the Chief of the General Staff even considered shooting Hitler during some of their late 1939 meetings in an attempt to remove the dictator from power (pp 58-9). In the end Halder lost his nerve, and the generals were unable to agree on a course of action, although there remained General Staff officers who were decidedly "anti-Nazi" particularly in Admiral Canaris's Abwehr.

What changed the whole plan was a series of incidents, mostly accidental, which allowed Erich Manstein's plan to gain the attention of not only Guderian, but Hitler and especially Halder as well.

Marc Bloch's contribution is very different from Frieser's. Bloch, the famous historian, had entered the Great War as a lowly infantry sergeant in 1914, and had come out a staff officer captian in 1918. For Bloch, the First World War was always "his war" amazingly not the Second in which he was to die serving France. Strange Defeat is perhaps the one book everyone should read about this episode of history, since it speaks much about the feelings in the country leading up to May 1940. If Frieser provides the timelines, major players, military context, strategic theory perspective, the whole factual, historical side, Bloch provides the voice. Bloch is speaking to us of those times: the stupidity, lethargy, fear, confusion, terror, despair, resignation . . . the whole range of mass feeling that he experienced. Shock as in "disconnect" is probably the last sensation, everyone for themselves. For instance, "confusion" . . .

One fine morning in May, the officer in charge ran into a column of tanks in the main street. They were, he thought, painted a very odd color, but that did not worry him overmuch, because he could not possibly know all the various types in use in the French Army. But what did upset him considerably was the very curious route that they seemed to be taking! They were moving in the direction of Cambrai; in others words, away from the front. But that too, could be explained without much difficulty, since it was only natural that in the winding streets of a little town the guides might go wrong. He was just about to run after the commander of the convoy in order to put him right, when a casual passer-by, better informed that he was, shouted - "Look out! They're Germans!"
Strange Defeat, pp 47-48

Bloch transmits all these emotions. He brings up the causes as well, such as the way that French Army staff officers were trained after 1918, the French focus on having to fight a long war of attrition rather than a short decisive war of movement and the failings of the French political system during the 1930s. Reading his sorrow of how the politics of his country had become hopelessly corrupt, the pursuit of narrow interest paramount while abandoning national interests, and the loss of meaning of the very language they were using to talk about politics all ring strangely familiar to an American reading his words in 2010 (pp 162-8).

One theme comes out again and again, which is that the French Army of 1940 was still thinking in terms of 1919, whereas the German Army (from Bloch's perspective) was thinking in terms of 1940:

I make no claim to be writing a critical history of the war, or even of the campaign of the Nord. I have not had access to any of the documents necessary for such an undertaking, nor do I possess the requisite technical knowledge. But there are certain obvious facts which should be made clear without further delay. What drove our armies to disaster was the cumulative effect of a great number of different mistakes. One glaring characteristic is, however, common to all of them. Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. In other words, the German triumph was, essentially, a triumph of intellect - and it is that which makes it so peculiarly serious . . .
p 36

Frieser points out though that this "triumph of intellect" was not across the board for the Germans, and that many high-ranking Generals failed to understand what was happening. The command and logistics arrangements for the advance to the Meuse indicate that. However, there were certain key German commanders - Guderian and Rommel for example - who understood the situation and were in positions to exploit it to the full, pushing their Panzer formations forward and leaving the German infantry formations far behind.

One last point that Bloch mentions is "synchronization" (p 78) in reference to what the British and French Armies failed to do before May 10, 1940. I think however the concept interesting as well in the interaction between the two opposing sides. Clausewitz's general theory has war going through alternative phases of tension, movement and balance throughout its duration. Should the movement phase lead to victory for one side then the interaction stops, but otherwise continues, essentially becomes a war of attrition after the (failure of the) first operation. Wars for the total overthrow of the enemy or even for more limited objectives can be won in one or two decisive operations (following Svechin here), but rarely do the political relations between the two sides allow for this. That is decisive victories of this sort are relatively rare in military history. A very complex set of circumstances has to be in place. Expanding on Bloch's "synchronization", a defender (or even attacker) who fails "to synchronize" his military means to the political conditions and the situation of the enemy is going to be at a disadvantage to an enemy who can do so.


  1. Every text about this campaign should mention certain personalities.
    Guderian (key developer and proponent of the armour branch as operational fist of the army) and v.Manstein (key developer of the operational plan) are obvious. Less obvious is Moltke the Elder, who was responsible for the German focus on encirclements with his Cannae fixation and book in the 19th century.
    These three were more influential in regard to that campaign than v.Clausewitz.

    Moltke already noted that a Cannae needs two generals; the encircler and the loser. The Germans faced a perfect storm of losers on the allied side in 1940.
    - too slow command & control
    - all fast units sent into the trap
    - too many French and British air power in reserve
    - no suitable reserves in the Sedan sector
    - poor training of troops
    - incomplete field fortifications
    - panic among French division leadership at the Sedan breakthrough
    - no recent combat experience (the Germans had lessons learned from Poland)

    There was again a perfect storm of opposing leadership failure in 1941, but afterwards it became obvious that operational encirclement attempts without such huge non-quantifiable advantages would be reduced to turning movements.

  2. Chief,
    The pic you used makes this look like a tactical walk.
    I will comment later.

  3. Sven-

    Your list of bullet points expands on my introduction a bit. Would only add that both the British and French, along with most of the German generals (and even Hitler) thought that the war in the West would be a long one, one of attrition, so there was that tendency among the Allies not to commit their airpower in mass. Still there is no excuse for not hitting the massed German columns as they were crawling through the Ardennes.

    I think you are mixing up Moltke with Schlieffen, who had the "Cannae fixation" and his influence if anything was negative in 1940.

    As you see I mention both Guderian and Manstein and do not mention any influence whatsoever in regards to Clausewitz . . . rather use one element of the general theory to consider Bloch's idea of "syncronization" which I find interesting.

  4. Seydlitz,
    My apologies, i just ASSUMED that Chief wrote this piece. My turn-mea culpa. Btw i was an altar boy.I should have caught the clue when you mentioned Karl.Not Gustaf.
    Unity of command is my comment on your essay.
    The Hun was punching and the allies were trying to push.

  5. Long time reader, first time commenter. It's an odd coincidence that you posted this today since I am currently reading Alastair Horne's "To Lose a Battle" and one of Horne's constant themes is how disorganized and at odds with each other the French were. I don't know if Horne gets into it yet but another recent book on the Battle of France had a long section on the German "Foreign Armies West" section's analysis of the French and British command systems and the author's opinion was that the brilliance of Sichelschnitt was the way it attacked the French command system, using their rigidity and siloed organization against them.
    As an aside, I have the 1990 edition of Horne's book and the forward and some of the footnotes include several references to the Yom Kippur war since the Israelis apparently learned the right lessons from 1940.

  6. Let's also drag in the political elements on both sides that made this operation so devastating. France was in many was still emotionally and politically devastated by the first war. The generation of soldiers destroyed at Verdun and along the Chemin des Dames - and politicians emasculated by the inertia of the 1914-1918 years - were in poor condition to make brilliant, rapid, original decisions.

    As it became apparent that the fixed fortifications were the wrong solution; or, rather, that the Germans were asking a completely different question, the French political leadership (and the highest levels of military leadership) were completely unable and unwilling to make the wrenching adjustment and try and cobble together some sort of plan that might have worked.

    The British were just as bad; preoccupied with Empire, they had done little to modernize their forces since 1918.

    Overall, the "perfect storm" seems to me a pretty good analogy. You had the combination of toxic shock from the political and military carnage of 1914-1918 with military complacency on one side versus the liberating effect of "nothing-to-lose" modernization, political unity and the idiosyncratic inputs of brilliant individuals such as Manstein on the other.

  7. "...operational encirclement attempts without such huge non-quantifiable advantages would be reduced to turning movements."

    And often even with them. In places as diverse as western Russia in 1941 and southeastern Iraq in 1991, the combination of distance, logistical issues, tactical fixation, and stubbornness (or simple inflexibility) on the part of the defender meant that tactical success didn't lead to the expected (by the attacker) political collapse and capitulation.

    I'd be willing to argue that the Soviet political and military leadership of 1941 and the Iraqi of 1991 were easily as bad as the British and French of 1940. But in the first case there was the brutal resiliance of Stalin's USSR and in the second the brutal indifference of Saddam's Iraq to casualties and losses of territory. The Soviets' and Iraqi's political pain tolerance was too high to collapse the way the French did.

    IMO one of the real problematic lures of the "decisive battle" formula is that a hell of a lot of them are, as Sven points out, sui generis events that can't predictably be reproduced, and yet our military texts direct us to study and attempt to do just that.

  8. jim: Thanks for the indirect compliment - I'll happily take credit for seydlitz's scholarship!

    And, for the record, I'd argue that on the grand tactical/operational scale it pretty much WAS a walk, but a walk that, again as Sven points out, required two parties - a German one willing to develop a new form of the operational art, adapt, improvise and overcome...and a French one willing to make the exact mistakes needed to make the German plan work.

  9. I don't buy the "Oh, the British and French lost so many good people in WWI and that's why they were so unprepared for WWII" argument.

    I seem to remember a few Germans being killed in WWI and they don't fall back on that excuse. I would look for British and French failings elsewhere.

    Second, I agree with Chief. Brilliant tactical success does not necessarily lead to political success. Look at Cannae. Hannibal won fair and square. And yet, the Romans were too stubborn to appreciate it, and the Punic war dragged on and on.

  10. AEL,
    In addition the Germans learned the wrong lesson from this campaign.
    They generalized that Russia would topple as did France and Poland. Not in that order, of course.
    This led to over reach and a false sense of superiority.I know it's hard to believe that Germans would feel superior , but that's my take.

  11. Ael: I don't think it was just an issue of "losing good people". The generation that went to war in 1914 had been raised on Victorian puffery about honor, manliness, "fighting the good fight" and all the other romantic crapola about war that had been getting stuck on it since the fall of Rome.

    All that shit got killed in the mud of the Somme, Verdun and elsewhere.

    I think it was more a mental death than a physical one. The guys that emerged from the other side were pretty gobsmacked. They had gazed into the abyss and the abyss had gazed back and they hadn't liked it.

    What didn't help is that the Allied infantry really didn't progress that much between 1914 and 1918. The arty got better (the French and British gunners with their Cult of the 75 and the romantic horse-poop of the 18 pounder couldn't have been worse prepared for 1914 - at least the Germans had SOME heavy artillery) and the tanks evolved but a hell of a lot of the infantry were still climbing ladders and shambling into the wire with their rifles at high port in 1917 as if the preceding three years hadn't happened.

    The German landser could at least point to a string of tactical victories up to and including knocking the Russians and nearly knocking the Italians out of the war. And don't rule out the difference between winning - which made the Allies at the same time complacent and nervous - and losing, which made the Germans, many of them, madder than hell and wanting to get some back. Don't forget, too, that a lot of Germans were worried about Hitler's expansionist mania; a hell a lot of the OKW expected to be pitched out of the Rhineland on their ear, and were sure that Hitler would run out of luck at some point. As jim points out, perhaps the real problematic part of the 1940 victory is that it did a lot to stifle the voices of people like Halder and von Rundstedt about Barbarossa the next year. After Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, who was willing to bet against the Fuhrer at that point?

    The really big difference was that Hitler was running the show in Germany versus Chamberlin in the UK and Reynauld/Petain in France. On the one side you had one of history's supreme egotists and single-minded adventurers, on the other, a decent sort of middling politician (Chamberlin), a widely-disliked factional leader whose reaction to the breakthrough at Sedan ("We have been defeated... we are beaten; we have lost the battle...") give you a measure of the man - he was no Churchill, and a barely functional geriatric (Petain) who was less concerned about defeating Germany than he was about not destroying France - to Petain, surrender was better than the complete loss of French military power. Vichy was better than death.

  12. jim-

    Mistaking my post for one of FDChief's is a compliment in my book.

    Big Daddy-

    Welcome. I've read both Horne's books on Algeria and Verdun, but not the one on France 1940, so can't really compare it to either of the two Fall Gelb references I've used.

    Agree with Ael's take on the losses of World War I . . .

    The problems with France in 1940 was based on many things, as Bloch mentions, not least of which was the result of their aggressive post-1918 policy to isolate and surround Germany.

    The French command system would have been good enough to have launched an attack to clear the western bank of the Rhine in late 1939 and they would have been able to achieve it since there was only a screen remaining in the West as most of the Wehrmacht was in Poland. Ditto with bombing the German's traffic confusion in the Ardennes . . . who plays Hannibal and who plays Varro is not set in stone.

  13. Ael: It's worth looking into the situation in French politics in the spring of 1940. Fucking mess would be a compliment. The Left and Right were at each other worse than ours are. Reynauld was elected by one vote, and his conservative opponents were the kind of people who actually wanted to fight Soviet Russia rather than fascist Germany. The French GQG was run by a bunch of old feebs left over from 1918. They really were a disaster waiting to happen.

  14. NB: the name of the French premier in 1940 should be spelled "Reynaud". My error.

  15. Chief:

    "....But in the first case there was the brutal resilience of Stalin's USSR...."

    Yupper! Good Buddy, Time and Space City were also a consideration. A wonkish German once remarked (upon conclusion of some sort of post war research), that the German Landser's letters home from the Ost Front "always" incuded the words Vast, or Vastness to describe the operational Enviro to the Family Volk.

    Jes Sayin.....Ole' Iosef snapped out of his cheap, self pitying, shite, jes' in the nick o" time, thanks to his different gauged Railroad, primitive roads, foul weather, Hyped up on the Rodina peasants, Fire Brigade Man Zhukov (Un-fucking each and every front)........and SPACE....shitloads of it. Not to mention Uncle Adolf's propensity to change the Strategic Target every time he had a brain fart. History is what it is, However.

  16. Aye, the British and French were really messed up. I mean what else can you make of:

    "It should be assumed for the purpose of framing the estimates of the fighting services that at any given date there will be no major war for ten years".

  17. Bloch on the French generals of 1940:

    "As it was, our war, up to the very end, was a war of old men, or of theorists who were bogged down in errors engendered by the faulty teaching of history. It was saturated by the smell of decay rising from the Staff College, the offices of the peace-time General Staff, and the barracks-square. The world belongs to those who are in love with the new. That is why our High Command, finding itself face to face with novelty, and being quite incapable of seizing its opportunities, not only experienced defeat, but, like boxers who have run to fat and are thrown off their balance by the first unexpected blow, accept it.
    But our leaders would not have succumbed so easily to that spirit of apathy which wise theologians have ever held to be among the worst of sins, had they merely entertained doubts of their own competence. In their hearts, they were only too ready to despair of the country they had been called upon to defend, and of the people who furnished the soldiers they commanded." p 125.

    This goes along in line with FDChief's argument and I agree with it, but with in limits. We must be careful to avoid looking at this very complex event as being some how determined by the trends that led to it. Along the line different decisions could have been made which would have made for very different outcomes. Even after Guderian had reached the coast, the French could have resisted in the pocket much longer than they did, they could have made the Germans pay much more dearly for their victory.

    Frieser brings out various instances of field and company grade French officers who handled their troops and weapons very effectively and could have achieved operational effect . . . if only there had been a leader to mobilized their disjointed efforts into a plan.

    In fact at the highest level, declaring war on Germany in September 1939 didn't make any sense unless the Western Allies planned to directly aide Poland with an attack in the West. What could be the benefit of simply declaring war and then doing nothing? As Sven mentioned, the French didn't even use the time they had between September and the following May to train the reservists to modern standards. The Germans on the other hand, used the time very effectively to train up their "Weisser Jahrgaenge" (those men who had not been subject to conscription during the Weimar period).

  18. Btw, Frieser's argument is also that the result of Fall Gelb/Fall Rot lead directly to Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union a year later. If France that held out till the bitter end in the First World War could be so easily defeated by the new methods, what hope would Soviet Russia have? Russia had of course been defeated by Imperial Germany . . .

  19. "...the French could have resisted in the pocket much longer than they did, they could have made the Germans pay much more dearly for their victory."

    But I think the point is that they really couldn't, given the particular set of circumstances they were in. Everybody, every soldier or military unit has moments where they're at the top of their game. But we're talking about where they WERE, not where they could have or should have been. You yourself point out the French waste of the months between September and May, 1940. "...if only there had been a leader to mobilized their disjointed efforts into a plan."...sure...but there wasn't.

    So while I'm not going to insist that post hoc ergo prompter hoc I'd argue that the odds were always 90-10 that the Allies were going to take it in the goolies in 1940.

  20. I think Bloch would agree with you, but I don't think Frieser would.

    Have you read his book btw? I think you would be asking quite different questions if you had.

    Sorry, but can't resist a little 4GW bashing since I sense that zombie lurking about somewhere in this view . . . No Blitzkrieg concept of operational art existed prior to Fall Gelb. The notions behind 4GW and thus 3GW are based on a profound and very simplistic version of military history, and have little basis on reality as Frieser argues effectively. So one has to get away from that . . . a dead end and liable to create basic misunderstandings.

    For instance your 90-10 view would hold for when, which point in time exactly? 15 May 1940? Before the Panzers cleared the Ardennes? Surely not November 1939 when Schlieffen Part II was the most likely operational template. That Manstein's version became the template required a whole series of incidents to come about, as in for instance a lost plane and plans landing in Belgium . . .

    For the Germans to have been able to fight the war at "their speed", or rather at Manstein's, Guderian's and Rommel's speed, they had to be in a position to dicate operational responses to the Allies. Prior to the breakout at Sedan, that was not the case. Had the Allies destroyed the mass of the German Panzers in the traffic chaos of the Ardennes (and it was very much in their power to do so) then they would have been in the position to dicate to the Germans and operate at closer to the speed of 1919 for which their Army was geared to do. The "Blitzkrieg enthusiasts" would have been disgraced, that is had they survived . . .

  21. The German fast troops ahd a doctrine for their employment that was based on Guderian's ideas. He emphasised that a concentrated employment of armour could offer operational relevance. It's in the dark whether he was focusing on the key ingredient of "Blitzkrieg"; the attempted encirclement.

    10% of the German army were fast troops (armour div, mot inf div), 60% were good standard infantry (few motor vehicles, mostly horse-drawn arty and logistics, men amrch on foot) and 30% were crappy divisions with incomplete equipment, old soldiers and little training.

    The army as a whole - this is one of frieser's main points - was not a "Blitzkrieg army" and had no "Blitzkrieg doctrine", but there were the seeds in the fast troops and their leaders.

    Btw, the British had a fully motorised expeditionary corps and the French army had more than twice as many trucks as the German one.

  22. True, but this was tactical doctrine. As Frieser points out the operational echelon began at the field army and in special cases the corps (when operating independently). Group Kleist did not have the status of a field army, and as the author points out was "tainted with the odium of something entirely provisional. It merely represented an ad hoc formation to carry out an extremely risky operational experiment. If the surprize attack had failed along the Meuse, then this would have meant the breakup of the Panzer Group after just a few days." (page 102).

    This lack of operational level doctrine affected the allocation of deployment areas and march routes which Frieser describes as "preprogrammed chaos". (page 109).

    Btw, I think we should add Kurt Zeitzler to the list of important personalities in connection with Fall Gelb.

  23. Guderian in WW-1 was a Signal Officer for a Horse Cavalry Division.

    Petain in WW-1 was hailed as the 'Saviour of Verdun' and was a mentor to DeGaulle. Later he disowned DeGaulle in the 20s and 30s when DeGaulle pushed for tank armies and a mobile defense strategy rather than static defenses like Maginot. And later of course they became deadly enemies although after the war DeGaulle saved his former mentor from the guillotine by commuting his death sentence.

    The BEF's Lord Gort in WW-1 received Britain's highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. And yet in 1940 he made the decision to abandon his orders for a southward attack, instead he moved north to Dunkirk for evacuation. Although the public line in England after the evacuation was that he was a hero for his actions, many felt he was a defeatist.