The Background, Part Two
Editor’s Note: The Long War is an alternative-history setting that includes several of our game expansions including Plan Z, The Emperor’s Sword and Co-Prosperity Sphere. This brief history tells of the events that led up to the situation in each of those; the story began in Part One.
Germany’s Axis allies took over occupation of most of the areas ceded by the Soviet Union in the July 1942 armistice, with German troops only securing key economic targets. Poland annexed all of Belarus, both the segment including Minsk offered by Lenin at the end of the Polish-Soviet War, and pushing the Republic’s eastern border to Smolensk. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had ruled those regions, and they became the new borderlands. The Poles also set up a Ukrainian puppet state under their sponsorship. The Germans retained economic domination of these territories, and extended their horrific racial policies into them as well. A German victory in the East was a terrible thing for those populations.
With occupation duties pressed onto their allies, the Germans could shift the bulk of their forces westward for a campaign of aggression. The Polish government refused to actively participate in operations against France, but the German high command had little wish to include allied formations in their planning.
German mechanized formations had begun to return home for refitting in the early spring of 1942, receiving new-model tanks with long 75mm and 50mm guns that had been designed to meet the new Soviet machines but now would have to face improved French armor. A number of these divisions instead received T34 and KV tanks from captured stocks and formerly Soviet production lines.
The move against the West began in August 1942. German mountain troops crossed the Swedish border at multiple points to invade Norway; the Swedes declined to participate themselves but allowed their German allies passage rights. German warships based at Murmansk supported the invasion of northern Norway. The Norwegians fought hard to defend their country, but could not last long. Meanwhile, the Germans also invaded Denmark, where they met little resistance.
Those unprovoked invasions brought a response from the Western Allies; Britain and France had not extended formal security guarantees to either of the Nordic nations but considered the occupation of Norway a threat that could not go unanswered. Both declared war on Germany, but not any of her allies. Since the Germans intended to attack France anyway, which would have triggered British intervention as well, the move caused little consternation in Berlin.
There was no “phony war” before the German invasion; less than three weeks after the invasion of Norway, with pockets of resistance still holding out, German panzer divisions erupted into Belgium and through the Ardennes forest. Other troops invaded the Netherlands, while the Italian Sixth Army, led by the crack Alpini Corps, tried to force its way across the Maritime Alps and into southern France.
The French had prepared for years, and quickly moved their First Army into central Belgium with six mechanized cavalry divisions, three armored divisions and three motorized infantry divisions, one of the latter a Moroccan formation. Tank battles raged across central Belgium, with the French giving the Germans far more than the Soviets ever managed. Their new tanks with long-barreled 75mm and 47mm guns were the equal of the best the Germans had to offer, but their crews lacked the hard-won combat experience of their enemies and slowly - much more slowly than they had panned - the Germans gained the upper hand. But they remained stalled in Belgium while French infantry moved up to dig in behind their screen of armor.
But despite this early success, the Allied position had a terrible weakness. Ignoring French pleas, the Belgians had refused to allow French troops to deploy on their soil until the first German had crossed their frontier. Likewise, the British government had refused to deploy any troops of the British Expeditionary Force on foreign soil while the Empire remained at peace. Only in late August did the first British troops alight in French ports, and by the time the Germans struck less than two divisions’ worth had landed, and none of them had actually deployed on the Belgian frontier. That left a glaring weakness on the French left, and the French First Army Group compensated by shifting their own forces leftward to cover it while they awaited the BEF.
Note: In the actual Second World War, the BEF had eight months to cross the France and assume its position on the French left flank. Even then the BEF included several divisions of troops so raw that they were only considered fit for use on construction details. In this alternative history they would have had far less time to prepare and would be unlikely to add much to Allied ground strength on the Continent.
That weakened the forces on the right flank of First Army Group, where it met the western end of the Maginot Line. The French had been ready in case the Germans tried to force their way through the rough terrain of the Ardennes, but the mobile forces that should have supported the infantry arrayed along the Meuse River had been sent into western Belgium to cover the arrival of the BEF. The Germans forced their way over the river at both Sedan and Dinant, unhinging the French position in the north. That forced the First Army, until then successful in forcing a stalemate on the panzer spearheads in Belgium, to begin a retreat into French territory.
Rapid German advances in the wake of the French retreat led to the fall of Dunkirk before the British could arrive to defend it, while First Army’s mobile divisions failed to pull back fast enough to avoid a double envelopment as the army command counter-attacked rather than retreat. Paris, declared an open city, fell in early October. Italian Alpini took Grenoble on the same day.
Note: In the actual Second World War, the hastily-mobilized Italian divisions made very little progress in their offensive. “I only need a few thousand dead,” Benito Mussolini said, “so that I can sit at the peace conference as a man who has fought.” By this point in our alternative history, the Royal Italian Army has been mobilized for two years and gained a great deal of combat experience on the Eastern Front without the catastrophic defeats that marked Italy’s actual participation in the war.
On the last day of October, France requested an armistice. The Germans granted a 10-day cease-fire, so that the armistice could be signed on 11 November in the same railway car where they had agreed to lay down their arms in 1918. Most French leaders by this point in the brief war held a deep resentment of their British allies, believing that they had purposefully held back the divisions that could have made all the difference in the defense of France. That was unfair, as the British had tried to move into position as quickly as they could once war had been declared. However, the refusal to commit Royal Air Force fighter squadrons to the Continent and instead hold them back for the defense of the British Isles did provide a legitimate complaint.
Feeling no obligation to consider British interests, the French countered German demands to occupy a swath of northern France including Paris and keep all prisoners of war as laborers in Germans. Instead, they offered, they would summon all French warships to return to home ports where they and all vessels currently under construction would be turned over to the Germans undamaged. In addition, they would hand over hundreds of modern tanks and aircraft in similar condition.
The Germans would have use of French ports and shipyards, and transit rights across French-administered territory to reach them. German troops would be stationed in other vulnerable areas, such as the beaches of Pas de Calais and Normandy, but most of France would be free of occupation. The French Army would limited to 250,000 men, and while France would retain ownership of her colonies the Germans and Italians would have basing rights there as well.
Note: The Vichy Republic deeply desired the return of Paris and the 1.5 million prisoners of war, but did not attempt to trade the fleet for them. By the time the Germans seized many of the vessels in November 1942 they had spent two and a half years rusting at their moorings; even without the damage inflicted by their crews they would have required substantial overhauls to bring them into service.
With France out of the war, Britain now stood alone to defend democracy against the fascist powers and their evil ideology. For three years the Royal Navy had been preparing for this day, overhauling its ships, laying down new ones and training new personnel. But the Germans had spent years building the fleet authorized in their Plan Z naval building program, they had captured most of the Soviet and French fleets, and they now held bases in Norway to project their power into the North Atlantic.
The new naval war would be unlike any other yet seen, with both sides wielding aircraft carriers, fast battleships and eventually jet aircraft. Britain would have to fight for her very survival against a relentless enemy bent on her destruction.
And that’s where the story of Plan Z begins.
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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 way too many books, games and articles on historical subjects. A few of them did not suck.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has been known to bark excessively.