“To understand historical reality, it is sometimes necessary not to know the end of the story.” Pierre Vidal-Naquet
The Fall of France, The Nazi Invasion of 1940
By Julian Jackson, Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary and Westfield, University of London
This is a book about the military campaign of 1940 that led to the fall of France. You could almost read it in one sitting, except that you might need to stop every few pages to get over the surprises he presents the general reader, for example, that Blitzkrieg (lightning war) is not the right word for what happened in 1940. He revises a lot of what is taken as fact about the period.
The French themselves have not written much about 1940, but more about its aftermath. After the war historians concentrated on the Resistance, later they wrote about Collaboration. Some military historians have written about the defeat but they are not considered part of mainstream history writing.
Official history strangely followed the Vichy regime in attributing blame; leaving aside who they blamed, it is the instinctive reaction “there must be an explanation, there must be someone to blame” that clouded the thinking at the time and for a long time after, even to this day. Jackson shows that you can always work backwards and interpret events preceding a catastrophe as causing the catastrophe. He asks us to imagine that France was beaten in 1914 (which nearly happened, but there was time to recover, unlike what happened in 1940); he then marshals facts about French society in the years leading up to 1914 and presents them in a way that shows how you could “prove” that politicians of the time caused the defeat. He uses the same counterfactual method to imagine the defeat of Britain in 1940. He then lists politicians who supported alliance with Hitler to show how you could make a case that British society was so rotten that it could not resist Hitler. He thinks that in both examples the case is spurious, and therefore it is spurious too in the case of France in 1940.
French historians however followed the Vichy regime in attributing blame to the politicians of the Third Republic. [The Third Republic (1875-1940) was established after Napoleon III and the defeat of 1871.] In fact, under the shock of the defeat these politicians did accept the responsibility for the defeat and they did hand over the government of the nation to a man, Marshall Philippe Pétain, who had not been part of the political body of the 1930s, except as a diplomat, and who was associated with a minority right wing view of politics.
After the Armistice Parliamentarians voted Pétain full powers to alter the Constitution. The “left” secularist government of the thirties thought it had led the country to defeat. It was time for it to admit its responsibility and give the right wing the chance to put the country back on its feet. In reality, says Jackson, the defeat was a military collapse, and “there was no need to invoke rottenness in the body politic” (p 167).
Politicians and Generals were put on trial by Vichy to account for their part in the defeat; by then, Blum and Daladier had recovered their senses and they defended themselves so effectively that the trial was abandoned after two months. General Gamelin, head of the Army in 1940, refused to speak throughout the trial. However, Blum and Daladier were not “exonerated” after the war, when politics intervened to prevent clearing their names, and the responsibility of the Third Republic remained as given.
Jackson takes a step back from the question of blame and asks, what actually happened, and how did it happen?
The first part of the book is a military account of the German attack in May 1940.
The French army was taken by surprise in 1914, but then there was time to correct initial mistakes. In 1940, after the initial surprise, there was no time to correct the situation; the French army was like someone stunned by a punch who doesn’t have the time to get back on his feet before the coup de grace is administered.
The Allied strategy was for a long war accompanied by a blockade of Germany, the war to be fought in Belgian territory and on no account on French territory. The best French units were therefore in Belgium when the attack came through the French border.
The German army came in through the Ardennes forest; it was very difficult terrain, units of soldiers got thoroughly entangled with each other, there was a terrific jam and the Germans were extremely vulnerable for a time; French planes had observed this but their observation reports were not acted upon. The thick mass of Intelligence was like a fog the French were unable to see through, reports of a possible German attack through Switzerland, for example, were given so much credence that substantial resources were employed to counter it.
The crossing of the Meuse with rubber dinghies and temporary bridges also exposed the Germans to enormous risk; Rommel actually led such a crossing of the Meuse; without his extraordinary example, the manoeuvre might not have worked.
Guderian led the army west then northwards, cutting off the best French units who had gone into Belgium and stretching German units away from the body of the German army; the result was described as resembling a turtle sticking its neck out very far and making itself very vulnerable. But the French High Command was unable to see what was happening and could not react speedily enough.
This was the working out of a predesigned plan that worked beyond expectations. Guderian exploited the situation. This is why it was not strictly a Blitzkrieg strategy. “Blitzkrieg in fact emerged in a rather haphazard way from the experience of the French campaign, whose success surprised the Germans as much as the French. […] The victory in France came about partly because the German High command temporarily lost control of the battle. The decisive moment in this process was Guderian’s decision to move immediately westward on 14 May, the day after the Meuse crossing, wrenching the whole of the rest of the army along behind him.” P215
This is all explained in detail with lots of maps. Then Jackson compares the two armies. (Note that he does not compare the three armies, even though France and Britain were supposed to be fighting together. He mentions “the simple fact that the British could only offer very limited help in the early stages. Ironside [Chief of the Imperial General Staff] commented on 17 May: I found that Greenwood was inclined to say “these bloody gallant Allies.” I told him that we had depended upon the French army. That we had made no Army and that therefore it was not right to say “these bloody Allies.” It was for them to say that of us.” p 214)
The French army had mobilised massively (over 2 million men) but it was badly prepared. There were too many reservists, both among soldiers and among officers. Jackson quotes Hitler who, in a letter to Mussolini on 25 May1940, said that many French active units fought desperately, but “the reserve units are for the most part obviously not equal to the impact of battle on morale.” (p180) Most units had never trained together. During the Phoney War mobilised units were disrupted more often than they were welded together: industrial workers were returned to their factories, armament factories in particular, where production had slowed with the mobilisation. This caused resentment among agricultural workers who remained at the front.
Equipment was insufficient and badly designed, for example in the case of tanks. French heavy tanks were solidly armoured and as a result required frequent refuelling, which was difficult to organise on the battlefield. Their main gun was placed on the body instead of on a turret, and the whole tank had to be manoeuvred to point the gun. On the other hand “the French armaments industry was in many areas out-producing the German” (p 217).
The defeat was not a foregone conclusion. The German army was not entirely mechanised either: “The truth is that the German army in 1940 was more dependent on horse-drawn transport than the French one. Only sixteen of the German army’s 103 divisions were fully motorized; and each infantry division required between 4 000 and 6 000 horses to transport its supplies from the railhead to the troops”. (p217)
The French people were not keen on the war in 1939; mobilised troops on their way to the front marched past acres of white crosses of the military cemeteries of the previous conflict, and through places with names like Chemin des Dames and Verdun. Their families and themselves in the case of the reservists remembered vividly the sufferings of WW1.
The Germans had also been at Verdun, obviously. The population of Germany was no more keen on war than the French. Jackson quotes reports by William Shirer and another observer in support of this idea, along with reports of the German security police between 1933 and 1939 “which suggested that the Germans were “not in an aggressive warlike mood but full of resignation, fear of war and longing for peace””p217. The German High Command had not been impressed by the lack of fighting spirit demonstrated by certain units in Poland in 1939. “It was for all these reasons that the German military leaders, even Guderian, saw the victory of 1940 as a “miracle”.”p219
Jackson then has a chapter about the consequences of the defeat. The main consequence was that the war became a world war:
“The war that had broken out September 1939 had not been a world war but a European conflict involving France, Britain, Germany, and (briefly) Poland. It is at least possible that if the Allies had succeeded in holding off the initial German attack, a stalemate might have ensued, resulting in some kind of negotiated peace. […] The Fall of France, however, transformed the international balance of power, sucking other powers into the conflict until by the end of 1941 the war had become a truly global one.” P236
Italy and Japan, which had stood on the sidelines indecisive about which camp to join, joined the winning camp. Hitler was emboldened to try the Blitzkrieg in Russia. Hitler had allowed Britain to escape unscathed from its continental adventure, and to continue the war to defend itself and its empire.
Hitler stopped his army 24 km South of Dunkirk, and the British Expeditionary Force of 200 000 men, which is all the British had committed to the Continent, was allowed to embark over ten days (26 May-4 June), albeit under bombardment, and save the bulk of itself.
Why did Hitler do this? Jackson examines the idea that Hitler wanted to finish the war with the West and give Britain an opportunity to make peace. (This is what the French expected would happen and the reason why they could sign an armistice that among other things consigned their one and a half million prisoners to German POW camps until peace was signed with Britain (C.W.)). Jackson dismisses the idea, preferring to think that Hitler had cold feet; but what was there to have cold feet about? Where was the extra risk?
Thinking back to the origin of the declaration of war by Britain then France in September 1939, it was a response to the invasion of Poland by Hitler; yet as Jackson says clearly, “There was never any intention of saving Poland, at least in the short term.”(p75) So Britain made an empty gesture towards Poland, which led to the defeat of France which led to a world war.
Jackson does not draw the conclusion that Britain brought about the world war through its foreign policy in the thirties.
He does not examine either the responsibility of French government in its relations with Britain and Hitler in the thirties; French politicians could have resisted British pressure and stopped the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. No wonder they felt responsible in 1940! Historians should not look so much at social and economic factors in France as leading to the disaster, but at French foreign policy, and the influence of Britain on French foreign policy.