1942: The Defense of France
By Matt Ward
Editor’s Note: 1942: The Defense of France is an alternative-history Panzer Grenadier supplement from our Long War setting, exclusively available to the Gold Club. Armed with the drawing-board tanks and weapons that were not ready in time for the 1940 campaign, the French face the battle-tested panzers fresh from their conquest of the Soviet Union.
A Hope for a Long War
In 1943, a short collection of essays comprised of ordinary soldiers’ personal remembrances of the brief campaign in France in the fall of 1942 was smuggled out of France, translated into English and published in New York and London. It rapidly sold out its first printing of 40,000 softcover editions under the title We Fought with Blanchard. The book remained in print throughout the Long War as battles, campaigns and fortunes ebbed and flowed. A first edition today is considered a tremendous rarity.
Many charlatans have attempted to increase the sales price of their early printing copies by forging the “author's signature”. These are truly historically illiterate frauds as most of the articles were provided anonymously to protect the authors from identification and retribution during the Occupation. Even today most of the essay authors have remained mute, if indeed they have survived.
Students of the Long War are encouraged to find a copy of We Fought with Blanchard. It provides the immediate reaction of those French soldiers who demonstrated that the German war machine was not invincible. That, with stout hearts and good equipment, men of resolution could stand up to the Germans and strike back. It was the demonstration of that resolution that added much to the willingness of the British Empire and the United States to fight for so long. It is not stretching the point too much to say that this book had much to do with the length and the depth of destruction that the Long War entailed.
The French were not fooled into war. They knew that they were overmatched by the Germans. Indeed, if the Soviets with their hordes of men and machines could not stop the Germans, what hope did France have? Nevertheless, the French went to war, not haltingly or dispiritedly, but with a stoic attitude. Here, from an early chapter in We Fought with Blanchard, an unnamed officer from a mechanized infantry regiment describes the feeling as they moved into battle:
It was with a grim determination and a clear knowledge of our impending fate that we sprang aboard our armored carriers. We were well aware that the Belgian refusal to permit our deployment into their country doomed both France and Belgium. We would do our duty and resist the invaders to the best of our ability but after the destruction of the inept but huge Soviet armies what could France do against the tested strength of Germany?
To be honest, many of us felt that declaring war on Germany at this point, to support Norway and Denmark of all countries, was virtually folly. The cry rang out in Paris, in Brest, in Orleans, in Metz: “Why die for Oslo?” The silence in reply was our answer. This was not a rallying cry to which a Frenchman could passionately respond.
Yet, we would fight and die and lose because we must. The destruction of the Soviets was something that many in France saw as a positive step in world history. Their political system seemed anathema to the entire West, and the results of this unholy “ism” certainly didn't attract emulation. Indeed, the Soviets’ cowardly and lumbering attack towards the Baltic Republics and Finland was roundly denounced by France and England. Had we chosen to support those countries at that time and taken the initiative perhaps we would be looking at different coalitions today.
Lack of confidence in the final result, however, did not mean lack of skill or lack of confidence in our armed capabilities. We felt, and from our experience rightly so, that our new equipment was the equal of that of the Germans. Had we but the experience of the Germans we might have resisted considerably longer. If we had the opportunity to deploy into Belgium such resistance could have been greatly enhanced. Forgive us if we do not grieve over the desecration of Belgium as we do over our own country.
The French Army of 1942 was no longer the strongest on the Continent. It had held that position in the opinion of military analysts until the latter part of the 1930s. The French had watched the conflict in the East with great attention and had learned lessons concerning the numbers and types of armored vehicles needed, the thickness of armor required to permit those vehicles to survive on the battlefield of the 1940s, and the necessity of antitank weaponry which could penetrate the armor of those German (and possibly Soviet) tanks that they might meet in battle.
The French rapidly rebuilt their divisions to incorporate those lessons. The new armored vehicles were concentrated rather than sprinkled amongst the infantry; that task would go to older tanks. Two types of mechanized divisions were developed. The first, taking the place of the cavalry divisions, were the divisions légères mécaniques. They would advance ahead of the main army and provide a mobile screen behind which the heavier units could deploy. The second, a new beast, were the divisions cuirassée de reserve, who were to provide the heavy striking force to attack flanks, weak spots and, if necessary counter similar forces of the enemy.
Despite all of the lessons learned, the technological advances made, and the constant training, all of the men in the French Army knew that the Germans and their allies were one step ahead. The Germans had actually fought against an enemy with sizable armored and mechanized forces. The French would have to learn as they fought.
A cavalryman wrote in We Fought with Blanchard:
We found that our tanks and antitank capabilities were strong and could provide for quite a surprise to the Germans who, no doubt, thought that we retained the H39s of the late 30s. Our new tanks with the high velocity 47s and 75s could reasonably penetrate German armor as the burning hulks on the battlefields across Belgium and northern France could attest. What we could not do was stop them. There always seemed to be more of them although perhaps that was just the skill with which they fought. They were faster to shoot than us and they worked well with their infantry support, something that hindered us.
In addition, the Germans had learned that control of the battlefield meant that any disabled vehicles on that battlefield that could be repaired would go back into their inventory, whereas our losses, even to an overheated engine or a thrown track, were permanent. They actually had mobile workshops which sprang into action upon the completion of an engagement to repair vehicles which had been damaged. Our intelligence estimated that half of the vehicles that we “destroyed” in engagements would be operational within 16 hours of their recovery.
In a campaign of just seven weeks the French Army was broken. They had, however, given the German Army a bloody nose in several engagements. The fact that the French had fought well and effectively gave hope that someday the battle could be revisited.
Finally this comment from a French commander of a B1ter platoon in We Fought with Blanchard:
It is no surprise that we lost this fight. The surprise is that we were able to counter the Germans at all. Despite the Armistice, we remain resolute and when the time is right we are prepared to fight again. This time to victory.
Sales of We Fought with Blanchard were particularly brisk during the latter half of 1943 as the Americans began to take offensive action against Japan. Clearly there was an affinity between the English and the Americans and the English hope for a counterbalance to the German hegemony on the Continent was for the Americans to arrive. Hopes for a resurgent France factored into that vision as well.
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