The Invasion of France: Covid Edition

So after a year-and-a-half of the Pandemic, two vaccine shots (team Pfizer) and one booster, Covid finally caught up with me, and just in time to spoil my Christmas.

Actual footage of me this year. Just kidding, this is from the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

I’m in a major pout rn. Between the family I don’t get to see and the parties I’m missing, it’s been a pretty disappointing holiday, even if the ‘Rona itself is mild. I spent last night querying agents and publishers for my novel, but I’m tired of that for now and thought I should update this thing instead. So back into my graduate work I go!

Here’s a picture of my Isolation Turkey. It was already in the brine when my test came back positive – what else was I supposed to do with it? Brined turkeys, btw, are wonderfully moist and have excellent flavor. It’s all pretty because I glazed it. But this isn’t a food blog.

Here is an earlier bit on the invasion of France in 1940, from one of our class discussions. The book I’m citing here is Karl-Heinz Frieser’s “The Blitzkreig Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West.”

Discussion Topic Of all the campaigns of the Second World War, none produced the shock and utter disbelief created the German defeat of France in the early summer of 1940. No one involved in the campaign, including most of the German generals, expected either the extreme rapidity of the campaign, or the totality of the result. On May 9, 1940, France was still counted among the dominant powers on the globe. Less than six weeks later, France had been thrown down by a defeat so complete that almost no one was able to believe it. Not even the stunning conquests of the Japanese empire a year and a half later could rival the impact of that disaster. During the Great War, German armies had overrun part of northeastern France, but proved unable to finish off the French army, and spent the next four years locked in a bloody stalemate in the trenches. Yet in 1940, in just a few weeks, the numerically larger, and in many ways much better equipped French army had been utterly defeated.

And in the years since that event, that French defeat became enshrined in popular consciousness as “inevitable”, particularly in light of the later triumphs of the German war machine. The Allies in general, and France in particular, came to symbolize an obsolete and fossilized approach to war, while the Germans came to represent the new, modern, and efficient means of waging war. When the new met the old, so this interpretation goes, the old was doomed to fail.

But is this an accurate assessment of the events of the early summer of 1940? Was the German victory inevitable? Or could it have gone the other way? Could the outnumbered, and in many ways outgunned Germans have instead suffered the sort of catastrophic defeat that history seems to have reserved solely for France? What were some of the “turning points” where a particular Allied (or German, for that matter) response or decision might have radically altered the nature of the campaign, and changed the outcome to one much more favorable to the Allies?

Such a rapid victory over France was an unexpected surprise for Germany, indeed.  Freiser demonstrates the ways in which the French outnumbered and outgunned the Germans.  In fact, German estimation of French might is made clear by the planning of a drawn-out war of attrition, and their estimation of the Maginot Line demonstrated by the fact that they chose to go around it, rather than over it. 

A series of fortifications built along the shared French-German border following WWI, the Maginot Line provided France over 200 miles of false security.

There were a number of “turning points” which made the German victory in France possible.  While reading this week’s chapters, I have ended up highlighting a dozen or so major issues and events, but I’ll stick to three here.

But Germany would never violate Belgium’s neutrality!! Wait, was that snarky?

The first major factor which contributed to the German victory was the adoption of Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Sickle-Cut Plan.  The initial plans for the invasion of France were all rather similar and generally uninspired, give or take a thrust here and there.  Manstein’s Sichelschnitt Plan was carefully planned out with Generaloberst Heinz Guiderian, who had knowledge of the area in question and also an understanding of the Panzers which Manstein wanted to use.  It eliminated the weaknesses he saw in the first several plans and exploited the vulnerabilities of the Maginot Line. The line ended at the Belgium border, partly because the terrain there was considered impassable, partly because France didn’t want to leave Belgium feeling offended and/or abandoned by having a line of fortifications built along their border, and partly because the French very wistfully convinced themselves that Germany would never dare violate Belgium neutrality by invading though them to get to France. However, the Sichelschnitt Plan took advantage of this wishful thinking by pushing through at Sedan.  It then involved a swing to the coast and a simultaneous second movement in the South to cut supply lines.

The plan was so bold that it was promptly dismissed by his superiors and MAnstein was promoted upstairs just to get him out of the way. 

The Sichelshnitt Plan may have been forgotten entirely and the invasion of France gone off differently were it not for Hitler, who – quite by coincidence – had also been toying with the idea of a break-through at Sedan.  Brought to the Fuhrer’s attention by loyal friends, Manstein’s plan aligned with one of Hitler’s vague notions and thus satisfied the man’s ego; he would later take credit for the thing.  Although the plan was altered, in the field of battle it would naturally evolve in just the manner which Manstein had forseen. (Freiser 60-67)

Panzers punching through the “impassable” terrain of the Ardennes.

The invasion of France was made possible by two main factors.  First we have the weakness in the Maginot Line.  Rather than tackling the defenses of this line head on and pushing directly across the French/German border, the Germans chose to circumvent it and exploit the weaknesses by pushing through the soft spots along the French/Belgium border, particularly at Sedan.  The French believed that terrain in the Ardennes made invasion impossible, and thus neglected the fortifications there.  As such, many of the bunkers there were incomplete, there was a shortage of mines, and there was a 1.5 kilometer gap in the bunkers at the northern bend of the Meuse. The French division stationed there – 55th Infantry – was also older, mainly reservists, poorly trained, frequently rotated, and more used to construction than fighting.  This combination made them somewhat unsuitable for combat and would later result in the Panic of Bulson, when much of the 55th simply fled in terror.  Furthermore, the Germans spotted several elements of the landscape that could be used to their advantage.  Advancing armies could use villages as a shield from attack and there was a textile factory that could provide storage for bridge building materials. (Freiser 145-154) 

Probably the most important factor which contributed to German success in France was the concept of Aufragstaktik – the practice of giving German commanders broad goals and then allowing them the initiative to pursue those goals in the manner which appeared most advantageous. This freedom would pay off during the invasion of France, particularly where General Guderian was concerned.  His decision to attack at Sedan – as opposed to west of the Ardennes Canal – was against orders but proved to be the right move.  However, the most famous example of Guderian’s defiance was to come after his crossing of the Meuse.  Against orders from Hitler himself, Guderian seized the opportunity and sent his Panzers westward, sweeping the other Panzer divisions along with him towards the Channel coast and cutting the Allies in two.  Guderian’s famous action was made possible in part by the actions of three other fellows, whose initiative enabled the crossing of the Meuse:  Oberleutnant L’homme de Courbiere,  Sargent Walter Rubarth, and Oberleutnant Gerhard Korthals.  Acting without direct orders from their superiors, these three men led their teams to break through the French lines at Sedan and caused the French defenses to collapse prematurely (175). 

French CharB

However, German Panzers were not the impenetrable machines they were touted to be – in fact, each time they went head-to-head with the superior French tanks they met with destruction, their shots reportedly bouncing off the French armor while their own comrades caught fire beside them; Freiser illustrates the sort of havoc the CharB tanks could wreck upon the Germans time and again. For example, during the battle for Stonne the French tanks started to incite panic within the elite GrosDeutchland regiment.  However, Oberfeldwebel Hindeland took advantage of the initiative encouraged by Aufragstaktik, took his antitank guns into the village, and discovered a weak spot in the side of the CharBs.  Stonne was yet another point in which the tide of battle could have turned in favor of the French but did not; although the French tanks would repeatedly drive the Germans out, poor coordination with the infantry forced them to constantly withdraw, allowing the Germans back in. (208-209) Aufragstaktik proved useful for the Germans when their radios failed or they became isolated from superiors.  It allowed them to seize key moments  and exploit opportunities which would otherwise have vanished had they been required to chase down their superiors.  The lack of such initiative would prove detrimental to the French, who repeatedly lost valuable time and irreplaceable opportunities waiting for precise orders from their superiors. 

A note on air-power, because I’m a sucker for it.

JU-87 Stuka divebombers. Note the siren mounted just behind the propeller.

Because Guderian was outgunned and well aware of the fact, he insisted on using the Luftwaffe as his own “vertical artillery.”  Guderian ordered rolling raids, repeatedly bombarding the French lines with wave after wave of screaming JU-87 dive bombers, shattering their nerves, neutralizing their artillery, and the pilots to more accurately hit special targets.(154)  While the actual damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe was minimal, the psychological effects of the dive bombers with their howling sirens (listen here) were severe and probably helped contribute to the later Panic. 

(Here I wish I had gone into more detail when I originally posted it, because I remember the Stukas pounded the French lines for hours and that after they finally laid off, the French troops – whose nerves had been utterly shattered – just dropped their weapons and “noped” right out. But I have to go find that in the book, reread, and actually summarize and cite it in some sort of decently academic manner. I say I’ll do it and update this – – – we’ll see if I actually do.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum were the attempts of the allied air force to take out the German bridgehead at Gaulier.  Every bit of construction material available had been used to construct this bridge, and thus the advance could possibly have been halted had it been destroyed.  Guderian was aware of this weakness and lined up heavy amounts of anti-aircraft weaponry to create a curtain of protective flak. Additionally, the French air force was in a dreadfully weak state, able to pit a mere 152 bombers against 303 flak guns and flying only 250 sorties against 814 from the Luftwaffe. (178)  Unable to take out the Gaulier bridge, the German advance continued. In fact, they could have inflicted greater damage upon the Allies and perhaps even ended the war were it not for the halt order at Dunkirk.  This allowed one million Allied soldiers, including the British Expeditionary Force, to escape and fight another day.  Freiser describes Dunkirk as a turning point, and I’m strongly inclined to agree with him.  It caused a fracture between Hitler and his generals, downgraded Manstein’s desired strategic victory to an operational one, and added to Hitler’s megalomania because he attributed the victory over France to himself. (314)

Because no discussion on the invasion of France would ever be complete without this iconic photo…
… and just for grins, a crappy pic of a Stuka project I glimpsed at the RAF museum in London – one of three left in the world.

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