Friday, November 07, 2008

"Strange Victory"

The above phrase is the title of the above book1, which is about the conquest of France by Hitler's forces in May-June 1940. This achievement was merely the climax of a whole series of spectacular military achievements by German Forces in 1940.

The surprisingly swift conquest of Poland in September 1939 had given a indication of the capacities of German Forces but still the swift overthrow of France in 1940 was a surprise. Since then it has become received wisdom that France's collapse in 1940 was inevitable. A note worthy indication of that is a review essay by Tony Judt2, in which Tony Judt reviews Strange Victory.

What is interesting is that the view that the conquest of France by Hitler's forces was NOT inevitable is actually a common place of the literature. For example:

The dazzling effect of what the new elements achieved has obscured not only their relatively small scale but the narrow margin by which success was gained. Their success could easily have been prevented but for the opportunities presented to them by the allied blunders-blunders that were largely due to the prevalence of out-of-date ideas. Even as it was, with such help from the purblind leaders on the other side, the success of the invasion turned on a lucky series of long-odds-chances-and on readiness of one man, Guderian, to make the most of those that came his way.3

Other examples in the literature can be listed4 which support the view that the fall of France was anything but inevitable. In Strange Victory, there is a list of rather interesting facts. Such has that the German's were outnumbered, that the allies had more tanks, and that unlike the Germans, who had none the allies had almost 600 heavy tanks. In fact c. 60% of German tanks were light, and that in Medium tanks the allies had almost double the number of German, and on top of that the allied tanks were superior.5 Even in aircraft the Germans were overall inferior.6

It is now known that both the Nazi war machine and and the economic power behind it were far more fragile than believed at the time.7 The crash course of massive remiliterization and massive re-structuring the economy had produced many successes but had massively dislocated the economy and had not produced all of the results desired. In other words Germany in 1940 was poorly placed for a long war.8 Even after their great victory over France and the conquest of much of Western Europe, (Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemberg, France), and the addition of Italy has an ally Germany still had serious economic problems, related to the lack of certain raw materials, blocked off by the British blockade, (Rubber, oil), and a serious looming problem of coal production and distribution for example.9

So what accounts for the victory of the Germans over France if it was far from inevitable? Well it seems to be a combination of the allies mistakes, luck and one of the most brilliant military plans of all time. Certainly the idea that the Germans won because of massive military superiority and modernization compared to their enemies is nonsense. to quote Strange Victory:
But Amouroux and others who write or speak as if the French Defeat of 1940 were inevitable and even foreknown presume that Hitler's Wehrmacht must have been better prepared, better armed, and less dependant on carts, horses, hay, and shoe leater, and that French and British leaders knew this to be so. In fact to say again what has been said more than once, Germany by most quantitative measurements was not nearly so well prepared for a major war as were France and Britain. The Wehrmacht had many fewer vehicles and was much more reliant on horses. Halder estimated that each German infantry division needed forty-four hundred horses and two thousand horse-drawn vehicles. The German army was to commence war in September 1939 with almost six hundred thousand horses and, early in its Western offensive of May-June 1940, was to be suffering a severe shortage of them.10

In fact it appears that Manstein's plan to lure the Allies into Belgium and the Netherlands and then swing around their flank through the ardennes worked amazingly well and achieved what can only be described has one of the most spectacular military victories of all time.11 Certainly it is hard to believe that the original German plan of a head on smash into Belgium would have achieved much of anything aside from probably driving the allies back.

In fact, although Hitler had some ideas similar to Manstein before Manstein brought his ideas to him, the plan was only adopted after a series of accidents and misadventures, (Bad weather forcing a delay of the offensive, loss of documents revealing the plan of attack), with much opposition from many of Hitler's Generals.12

It is of interest that Tony Judt, like so many others who think the fall inevitable, in his article doesn't argue with Ernest R. May's facts he just repeats that despite what the facts are he knows that the fall of France was inevitable because he feels it was inevitable. He simply "knows" the truth. Of course he doesn't say so quite so bluntly but that is what it amounts to. The basis for this opinion seems to be nothing more than gut instinct or some "psychic" power.13

So in the end it was to a large extent through sheer bad luck for the allies and good luck for the Germans that the attack succeeded so spectacularly. Although given the long term consequences for Germany and the World it turned out to be every bodies bad luck that Hitler won.

1, Strange Victory, Ernest R. May, Hill and Wang, New York, 2000.

2,Could the French Have Won?, Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, v. 48, No. 3, February 22, 2001.

3, History of the Second World War, B. H. Liddell Hart, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1970, p. 66.

4, *To lose a Battle, Alistair Horne, Penguin Books, London, 1969. The Collapse of the Third Republic, William L. Shirer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969. The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze, Penguin Books, London, 2006. A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, J. F. C. Fuller, Da Capo, New York, 1956.

5. Strange Victory, pp. 476-478.

6, IBID.

7. The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze, Penguin Books, London, 2006. Interestingly this book supports the argument that Hitler's victory over France was not inevitable. (pp. 370-372)

8, IBID. pp. 366-367.

9, IBID. pp. 412-418.

10. Strange Victory, pp. 208-209

11. The Wages of Destruction, pp. 368-370.

12, A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, pp. 386-390, The March of Conquest, Telford Taylor, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1958, pp. 155-180.

13. Could the French have Won?

*In his conclusion Alistair Horne veers very strongly towards the inevitability idea without quite embracing it fully. For example:

When the attack came the following May, the preponderance of strength - with all factors taken into account - was immeasurably greater on the German side than at any time during the First World War. (p. 656)

What is fascinating is that Alstair's Horne's narrative and the facts he musters in his narrative DO NOT provide much support for this idea and in fact argue strongly against it. That is why this book is listed has supporting the idea that the fall of France was not inevitable despite what Alstair Horne says in his conclusion. It is of interest that Alstair Horne's statement in the above quote about German preponderance of strength being "immeasurably greater" than at any time during the First World War, is hyperbole to such an extent has to amount to a falsehood. In fact given the facts given in Alstair Horne's own book and the other books listed here it is simply false. To but it bluntly on May 10, 1940 the Germans DID NOT have a huge preponderance of strength if anything the allies had a slight edge over the Germans.

Pierre Cloutier

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