Swallows of Death:
by Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The French Army of 1940, despite having large number of tanks (more of them than did the Germans), remained like all armies of the era an infantry force. “Firepower kills,” the mantra went, and the infantry was designed to lay down a torrent of fire. Artillery support doctrine depended on the infantry holding its ground to allow massive concentrations of centrally-controlled batteries to smother any attacker with shells.
The French infantry battalion had the structure to perform that mission: it was a flexible organization with a great deal of firepower devolved to its command. The French Army’s problem in 1940 did not like in its organization, but in its attempt to train and field as mass-levy army. By funneling the maximum number of conscripts through the system, it robbed itself of the fully-trained divisions that should have been the backbone of France’s defenses.
Panzer Grenadier: 1940: Swallows of Death shows how a division armed and organized along those lines could perform when fully trained. The 1st Moroccan Infantry Division performed extremely well in the 1940 campaign and was clearly the best infantry division on either side; at Gembloux it stopped two panzer divisions cold. Its men were for the most part fully-trained, long-service regulars. French reservists joined in October 1939 to help flesh out the technical services – radiomen, sappers, medics and such.
Divisions raised in metropolitan France did not have that luxury; even the active divisions had large contingents of raw recruits on hand undergoing training. Reservists in theory should have gone to their local unit, but often found themselves riding the rails across France to reach their assigned billet. The Moroccan experience showed that a French division, when filled with fully-trained men settled into a familiar unit with officers and comrades known to them, was at least the equal of a similar German formation. Let’s have a look at that structure.
A French infantry battalion consisted of three rifle companies, each in turn made up of four infantry platoons. The company would be led by a captain, with a senior NCO to assist and a small staff, a signals section, a supply section and a medical detachment. The infantry platoons, each led by a lieutenant with a sergeant to assist him, had three 12-man squads. Each squad had a fire element with an FM24 light machine gun, and a maneuver element of four riflemen and a grenadier with a rifle-mounted grenade launcher (this last was slated to be replaced by a new-model 50mm light mortar in the summer of 1940). In addition to the infantry platoons, the company commander also had a mortar squad with a single 60mm mortar at his disposal.
The infantry platoon compares favorably with that of the Germans; the German version had 43 men in three 13-man squads, with a light machine gun in each squad and a single light mortar. The French platoon numbered 41 men. But the French infantry company had four such platoons, where the German company had only three.
The French infantryman had just begun to receive the new MAS36 rifle, a decidedly unattractive and boxy bolt-action weapon designed for ruggedness rather than beauty. It only equipped a few units, as its replacement was already anticipated in 1940 by the semi-automatic MAS40. Without enough MAS36 rifles to equip all of its divisions, the French Army issued Great War-era Berthier M07/15 rifles (these appear to have equipped all Moroccan units in 1940) and some third-line divisions received the old Model 1886 Lebel rifle.
Design Note: The standard German Army infantry platoon in early-war Panzer Grenadier games has a direct-fire value of 5, while the first-line French platoon (ESC or TIR) in the 1940 games has a direct-fire value of 4. The Germans probably should be rated slightly better, but a full 20 percent advantage is a lot. One could make an argument that the Moroccan Tirailleurs deserve the 5 value, but I’m comfortable with designer Philippe Léonard’s decision to rate them at 4.
From its infantry platoons, each battalion (at least those stationed along the border in 1939 and 1940) raised a special platoon of volunteers, 35 to 40 men led by a lieutenant and called a Groupe Franc. This followed the tradition of the assault platoons of the Great War; the men were specially trained in infiltration tactics and armed with submachine guns when these could be obtained, and a great many hand grenades. They patrolled aggressively at night, slipping behind German lines to harass their rear areas. They were trained to handle mines (both removing them, and placing them) and close-assault tactics.
The infantry battalion had a great deal more support to offer its companies. Each battalion included a machine-gun company with four heavy machine-gun platoons, each of those with four Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns. This was a heavy weapon, and though it had been improved with a belt feed and new ammunition, it was badly outclassed by the newer machine guns wielded by the equivalent German platoons. But at least the tables of organization gave the battalion plenty of them.
The infantry battalion also included a small heavy weapons company (formally called a “platoon”) with a medium mortar section and an anti-tank section. The mortar squad had two 81mm Brandt Model 1927 mortars, the ubiquitous design that equipped almost every army of World War Two. The anti-tank squad had two 25mm Hotchkiss anti-tank guns, light-weight and mobile – the gun and its limber could be drawn by a single draft horse. These could still defeat any German tank fielded in 1940, though they would rapidly be made obsolete after this campaign as new models of tanks received thicker and thicker armor.
A few units still fielded the 37mm Model 1916 infantry gun, a tiny cannon that could be mounted on a tripod like a machine gun or a miniature artillery carriage complete with a splinter shield. It could be found in the place of either the 81mm mortar or the 25mm anti-tank gun, or both. It had very limited utility against enemy armor, and only slightly more against fortified positions (its intended use) as the 37mm round (the smallest size allowed for explosive shells under the 1899 Hauge Convention) did not have the power to do much damage outside of a direct hit. But French arsenals held plenty of them, and they had to serve until more modern weapons could take their place.
Three battalions made up an infantry regiment. The regiment had its own heavy weapons company, with six 25mm anti-tank guns in three sections, plus a section with two 81mm mortars. Some regiments had an additional company with 12 more 25mm anti-tank guns.
An infantry regiment also had a pioneer platoon, and one of the three regiments in each infantry division also had a pioneer company of three such platoons. The platoons had 50 men, commanded by a lieutenant, and were intended for feats of engineering – digging entrenchments, building bridges, knocking together ferries – rather than spearheading assaults (that job went to the Groupes Francs). Two more engineer companies, capable of heavier tasks, existed at the division level.
During the inter-war years, the French battalion, regimental and divisional organization would become the model for most armies around the world. The French Army had, after all, defeated the Germans in 1918. Many reasons lay behind their failure to do so again in 1940; their infantry organization was not one of them.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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