1940: The Blitzkrieg Legend
Comparative War Planning, Part Three
By Vincent Kamer
Once you have the plan and the forces, you need the proper execution. For this you need the right command and control. This is based on the technological tools at hand, but also on the people and institutional culture. In May 1940 the command and control of the Germans was far superior to that of the Allies. On this point there is very little debate.
Into the woods they go.
This had something to do with technology, and in particular radio and wireless communication, which was much more widespread in the German Army. This led to to closer cooperation and coordination between front line commanders and headquarters, as well as fighting and support units. Operationally in May 1940 German commanders had much better communications than their Allied counterparts. There was just one little snag: as of January 1940 the Allies started breaking the “Enigma” code and were listening in. In 1940 the technique was not yet sufficiently developed to give continuous detailed information and when the code switched on May 10th it took 10 days to get messages decoded again, but that would be the last time that the Allies could be fooled strategically. Operationally however the Allied commanders of May 1940 were mostly reliant on the telephone, and when that got cut or was not working, a general was reduced to sending out the good old liaison officer or going to see for himself.
There has also been much said about the superior military culture and fighting spirit of the German people, when compared to the French or Belgians or even the British. In my humble opinion, that is a “load of poppycock” – if you’ll pardon my French. I have some considerable personal knowledge. My mother and her family are prime German Aryan material and I mean the lot: blond hair, blue eyes, a solid family tree going back generations. My Grandfather died fighting on the Eastern Front, as did his two brothers and all three of his male cousins. Blut und Boden big time. On my father’s side I’m Dutch. You know the guys that didn’t even turn up in World War I. He was born in Rotterdam in ruins and was so anti-military he refused orders and got banged up several times during his military service. And my wife is Irish, and there . . . well actually let’s not go there. Suffice to say that they are all human beings (yes even the Nazi ones) and in genetic terms indistinguishable. To date I have not seen a single scientific study that bravery (or stupidity) is better represented or distributed among any of the nationalities that participated in the conflict (and which in some cases had been part of the other country just a few decades earlier). From the case study I can give plenty of examples of heroism on all sides. No differences there.
This machine killed fascists.
What can create differences is of course training and experience. Both armies had elite units and units that were probably better off staying home in the first place. Not of course in the same proportions. Frieser expressed it in an image of a spear with an iron head and long wooden and increasingly rotten shaft. The Germans had their spear. The French had theirs. When comparing these we get back to the forces discussion – no total spear major differences as far as I can see. The one BIG difference is combat experience – the German army had a core of divisions which had combat experience – not cold war, not funny war, but real red hot war, in some cases stretching back years (depending how you view Denmark/Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sudetenland, Austria, the Rhineland). These were quite often the same units and they were MEGA good. It is in these units we find in 1940 the kind of effectiveness of command and control that made the highly respected military historian von Creveldt say, “The German Army was a superb fighting organization. In point of morale, élan, unit cohesion, and resilience, it probably had no equal among twentieth-century armies”. The German Army he referred to grew mostly after May 1940, when combat experience became more and more broadly available and to the previous list of names were added Fall Gelb (the offensive in the West), Marita (Southeastern Europe), the Afrika Korps and the mother of all offensives, Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. In 1940 this was true mostly of the armored spearhead. They outclassed the rest. And when that super class spearhead hit the wooden shaft of the other side, that side got shafted all over the place.
A good example of this in the case study is the 7th Panzer Division. In the course of the campaign’s first three days it changed organization three times. On May 10th its combat forces split in four (Steinkeller, Fuerst, Rothenburg, Bismarck), to thread through the small and blocked roads as described above. Then on May 11th it reorganized into a new lead attack group Fuerst (which included Steinkeller’s motorcycle recon battalion (K7), but now added an infantry regiment (SR6), most of the engineers (Pi58), some antitank and reconnaissance elements (1cie/PzJA42 and 2 patrols from PzAA37), more artillery (II/AR78) and a full battalion of panzers (II/PzR25)) to break through the Ourthe and work up to and past the town of Marche, followed by Bismarck and Rothenburg. Then on May 12th the division reorganized into two parallel attack groups: North Rothenburg (based on the PzR 25, with the motorcycle battalion (K7) and engineer and flak elements in support) and South Bismarck (based on the other infantry regiment (SR7) with a battalion of tanks (II/PzR 25) with engineer, antitank and flak elements in support) both driving along parallel paths towards the Meuse river, with Fuerst (SR6) and the Recon battalion (PzAA37) in reserve ready to exploit. For good measure Hoth added the Vorrausabteilung Werner, belonging to the 5th Panzer Division, to Rommel’s command at 0900 on the 12th as he could see that 5th Panzer was not progressing as fast and he wanted to increase the chances that the Meuse would be reached and an intact bridge captured. And all these changes worked very smoothly and effectively – breathtaking!
And out of the woods they come.
The first units to experience this were the DLC’s sent out in front of the French main line to reconnoiter. Seventh Panzer Division hit elements of 1 and 4 DLC as of 1100 on May 11th about half way through its 130-kilometer trek. And still the Germans took about as much time to complete the second part of the journey as they had the first half where all they saw were a lot of undefended roadblocks and one poorly-equipped company of courageous Belgians. No arguing with who is better here (even if to be complete and honest, the French received orders for a fighting withdrawal to the Meuse on the 12th at dawn – and back they did get with all bridges blown, minus a good bit of equipment and personnel, with their units pretty disorganized).
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