1940: The Blitzkrieg Legend
Comparative War Planning, Part Four
By Vincent Kamer
There is one remaining factor we have not yet talked about in command and control and that is the quality of the commander. It is very important. All actions carry some risk and going to war in particular carried a high risk and a certain amount of gambling. In this way war is in some aspects like a high stakes poker game.
On paper the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army in May 1940 was Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, but we all know who was really in charge – Adolf Hitler, the Führer. This was during his more benign phase where he was not yet controlling the setup of every division and interfering in the tactical control of operations on a daily basis. In Adolf Hitler, the German Army had a commander who was one of the best gamblers around and he had hit one of the most momentous lucky streaks of the Twentieth Century. He had to risk everything, as he knew that time was not on his side. He had kicked off the arms race and held a slender two-year lead at best before the Allies would catch up with him. He wanted it done and fast, no matter the risk.
Across from Hitler in the side corner sat Leopold III, King of the Belgians, commander-in-chief of their army. A relative newcomer to the game, he didn’t want to be at the table at all. He wanted to avoid all risk and stay neutral, out of the game, except he was not given a choice in the matter. And instead of a no-risk neutrality, he lost the opportunity of full Allied protection, which carried more risk. Still, that risk was a lot less than that of facing the German offensive with forces that could not withstand this on their own and a lack of cooperation and coordination with those Allies that did seriously increase the risk for all involved. Leo was out of the game and in captivity after three weeks.
Facing Hitler was Gen. Maurice Gamelin, commander-in-chief of the French and also Allied forces. Gamelin was a very experienced soldier – he’d done World War One and lived to tell the tale. Good set of brains too, we are told. He held a good hand and had no need to risk anything – time was on his side. So he took a defensive attitude and sat out the war against Poland – I get it. But then in November 1939 there’s a sudden rush of blood to his head and he piles on the risk by adding a Breda variant to a solid Dyle plan. And leaving way too many troops in the Maginot Line and not building up an army reserve to work with, while putting half your air force in reserve and on top of that making his front look like a doughnut with a big hole in the center – what is that about? As a last straw, once it is clear – at latest by the 13th of May - where the danger is when the Meuse is crossed at Dinant and Sedan, not organizing an effective counterattack with all available forces until you get sacked a week later. Brilliant mind maybe, brilliant commander-in-chief no way! So exit Gamelin on 19th May, but he had really messed it up big time by then and left pretty much no way to recover.
That left one more guy at the table facing Adolf – a certain Winston Churchill. Winston had a long and checkered career behind him – including World War One and the soft underbelly of Europe and the soft-in-the-head landing at the Dardanelles. He knew about risk, he knew he had time and an even bigger anti-tank ditch called the English Channel, and most of all he was never, never, never going to give up. Adolf so wanted him to be his friend, but Winston did not want to play. So basically that meant game, set and match for the Allies by the end of 1940, when Hitler couldn’t invade England, did not have the concept or provide the resources to make a full-blown invasion of the Middle East, had not planned for the resources to win the Battle of the Atlantic (which unbeknownst to him he could not have won anyway as the Allies knew where his pesky U-boats would be) and decided he did want to try a game of war with Stalin which was his not-quite-secret fantasy (and no matter that he increased the risk level exponentially in a two-front war).
It is certain that at the level of the case study the impact of the commanders has less consequence, nevertheless they could have been determining. My favorite example on the French side is the order given by General Bilotte (C-in-C 1st Army Group, which included 7th, 1st, 9th and 2nd Armée) on 27th of March 1940:
La 9e Armée portera d’emblée ses divisions legères de cavalerie, renforcées de groupes de reconnaissance, sur la Meuse, entre Namur et Givet, éclairant sur la direction de Stavelot et Vielsalm, en aval d’Alle. Dès que la Meuse sera assez solidement tenue, les divisions légères de cavalerie de la 9e Armée seront poussées au plus vite jusqu’au contact de l’enemi avec mission d’aider les troupes de couverture belges et de retarder l’avance allemande.
(The 9th Army will immediately deploy its light cavalry divisions and reinforced recon groups on the Meuse between Namur and Givet, facing the direction of Stavelot and Vielsalm, downstream of Alle. Once the Meuse is solidly held, light cavalry divisions of the 9th Army will be pushed forward quickly to contact the enemy, with a mission to help Belgian covering troops delay the German advance.)
Hard-marching poilu. They don't look all that hairy.
There has been a good bit of debate about whether the French 9th Army had the time to win the race to the Meuse against the German 4th Army. Images of heavily-loaded poilu laboring under the sun to close the gap in fast marches over two to four days abound. For example, by the end of 12 May the 18th Infantry Division had only five of its nine battalions in position behind the Meuse. The facts are very simple: with 2 DLC’s and 1 DIM in your order of battle, there is absolutely no problem deploying troops on the Meuse very quickly. In fact by end of 10th May these forces were already arriving or in place on the Meuse. The problem is that Corap then decided to have the two entire DLC’s (instead of just the recon forces) chase into the Ardennes for another 100 kilometers to look for Germans instead of doing what his commander ordered and what his main mission was: first secure the river! And just to add some oil to the fire – what has been the most-used crossing point in history on that stretch of river? The Anhée gap just north of Houx. That would have been the most important sector to protect. Who was set up there? Hardly anyone and certainly not Corap’s best troops.
The mention of Houx brings to mind another example of leadership in the crossing of the Meuse itself. Many people have heard of the crossing at Houx. Not only is there an island and lock there, which could not be blown up (as otherwise the Meuse would have drained dry), and which allowed passage for infantrymen single-file across the Meuse. But also due to a French error in positioning troops, they had left a stretch of 1200 meters of riverbank undefended just behind this island. The Germans quickly exploited this mistake (for the purists only – the first units to cross were the 3rd Kradschütz Kompanie of the Panzer Aufklaerungsabteilung 8, a unit of the 5th Panzer Division, that at that time was part of the Vorausabteilung Werner, which in turn was under command of Rommel at the time – so while it was not Rommel’s units which first crossed the Meuse, he was technically in command) and infiltrated a significant amount of infantry (SR13) across and in doing so formed a first bridgehead, but no bridge. They were thus exposed to a counterattack which duly came (even if late) on 13th May in the evening and nearly drove them back into the river had it not been for some German heroics (or was it good command and control?) and French misfortune (or was that bad command and control?).
Flossacks aweigh! Germans crossing the Meuse, May 1940.
Three kilometers further south 7th Panzer Division had to do it the hard way – crossing a 100-meter-wide river in rubber boats with the opposing riverbank held by French troops of 66IR and 77IR of 18DI. In the beginning this was a pretty massacre. There is consensus that the reason that by the end of the 13th the 7th Panzer had established a bridgehead was due in huge part to the tireless and energetic leadership of Rommel. He was all over the place – having his troops set fire to houses to provide a smoke screen, calling up and directing panzers and artillery to open direct fire on the opposing riverbank to suppress and pin down enemy machineguns, energizing troops to get back into the boats to have another go even though there were bodies floating all over the place, and as soon as possible organizing rafts to get even light armored vehicles across to make sure the troops that made it across had some protection against counterattack. Absolute textbook stuff and true proof that top leadership can tip the balance even if the odds are already pretty good. No surprise then, to hear that the first bridge built across the Meuse was in Rommel’s sector and he was the first to break out of the bridgehead and moved so fast that his Panzer Division was nicknamed the “Ghost Division.”
So here we have the conclusion:
• Germany’s war plan had higher odds for success than the Allied plan, certainly if you look at the combination of both.
• Germany had overall no more or better forces in the field than the Allies, but they had concentrated them better. Together with the initiative of attack, that increased their odds of success even more.
• Germany had a technological edge in command and control through better use of radio technology. While Germans are no better at fighting than others, through the concentration of accumulated battlefield experience, training and command in a small number of high impact armored units, was able to field a limited number of far superior fighting units. If these could be set against “normal” enemy units in good circumstances the odds of success would become near certain.
• Germany possessed a commander in chief, who was more coherent with its war plan and who up to that point made fewer mistakes (save one long-term one, and that was to start a war in the first place!)
At the level of the case study we can find many examples, which support these overall conclusions.
There is one final factor we need to talk about and that is luck. You can have all the plans you want, all the forces you want and the best leader in the world – if Lady Luck hates you, you are not going anywhere. Or vice versa you get a Get Out of Jail Free card. The best example here is the weather. Even Hitler could not control the weather. He knew he needed a period of good weather to attack in order to unleash all his forces most effectively and so he had to wait for it. Initially he would have liked to attack as early as October 1939, but the weather did not cooperate. And then in November 1939, but again no clear weather. Then January 1940, still no clear weather. And then he bloody lost his plans to the enemy. What bad luck? What good luck!!!
Just imagine what an attack in October 1939 would have been like: no Sichelschnitt, no Dyle-Breda version, his forces not nearly as well equipped or ready, much less concentrated in a Schwerpunkt, French reserves in the right place. Still the spearhead, but much less opposing shaft. Still Mega units and good commanders, so still with a small chance – but the odds would have been muuuuch worse. Want to try? Play a wargame!
Plan your own invasion! Order 1940: The Fall of France right now.