Explaining Defeat – France 1940: ‘Moving in a Kind of Fog’ II

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The Weygand Plan

The fluidity of the battle between 15 May and 4 June was exactly the kind of warfare the French were least prepared to deal with. As General Prioux put it, the enemy was ‘imposing his will on us and . . . we had lost the operational initiative’. The only solution would have been to organize a powerful thrust at the Germans by a concentrated force including the DCRs, but this force would have had to be ready by 16–17 May. The French lacked the logistical apparatus to coordinate their responses fast enough. The movement of troops was also severely disrupted by the German bombing and by the refugees who clogged the roads. There were too few radios; most communication was by messenger or telephone, both of which were easily interrupted. French deficiencies in communications were visible at every level, starting at the top. Gamelin’s command post lacked a radio or even carrier pigeons. He either communicated by messengers (who were often the victim of accidents) or by time-consuming personal visits to command centres. Marc Bloch noted that the First Army headquarters often had no idea where its own corps were situated. In the resulting chaos, French command structures disintegrated; regiments were cut off from their divisional headquarters. As one soldier wrote: ‘[W]e had the impression of a total lack of coordination in the orders we received. We felt we were moving in a kind of fog.’

British control and communications were no better: the whereabouts of Gort were often a mystery. As one British officer commented after the defeat: ‘[D]ecisions had to be made so very quickly and so often could not be confirmed on the basis of the information coming in. . . . The general moves the Germans made were so quick and where you may have a stable situation in the morning, by 7 o’clock or 8 o’clock in the evening, if you did not act and do something, the situation might be irretrievably lost.’

The misadventures of General Prioux perfectly illustrate the confusion and communications breakdown on the French side immediately after the German breakthrough. Prioux was one of the few French generals whose resolution did not falter throughout the disaster. Having fallen back from the Dyle with his Cavalry Corps, along with the rest of the First Army, he was eager to launch a counterattack on the German corridor from the north. One problem, however, was that his own forces had become very dispersed. While trying to reunite them, he also sought orders. From Valenciennes on 17 May, he phoned Georges and was told that he might be of use to the Ninth Army at Mormal, but that ‘this was not an order and I was to do nothing without referring to the Army Group, which would perhaps have a different use for me’. This was indeed the case. Finding Billotte at Douai he was told that the First Army ‘needs you’ (Billotte also told him that France was heading for a catastrophe worse than 1870). At dawn on 19 May, Prioux was instructed to attack south towards Cambrai, which contradicted orders he had received the previous day. The order was anyway impossible to execute, since his tank brigades had not yet arrived despite having been ordered to do so. On the next day, trying to implement the instructions he had received, he dictated an order to attack towards the south-west of Arras. Then a few minutes later he was told to stay put instead. Prioux reflected ruefully that he had been at five different command posts in four days.

There is no point in seeking out individual culprits. About thirty-five generals were sacked after the initial disaster, and Corap was selected as the most high profile sacrificial victim. But this was an entirely arbitrary choice. The performance of Huntziger’s Second Army had been no better than that of Corap’s Ninth. Corap had at least tried to draw attention to the problems of his sector before the German attack, unlike Huntziger, who had been extremely complacent. In October 1939, when hearing about the defeat of Poland from the French attaché in Warsaw, Huntziger had remarked: ‘Poland is Poland . . . Here we are in France.’ He is reported to have said, on hearing that the first Germans had crossed the river at Wadelincourt, ‘that will mean all the more prisoners’. When the aerial bombardment started at Sedan his initial response was that the soldiers needed their baptism of fire. Although Huntziger had been sent important reinforcements in the form of the 3DCR and 3DIM on 13 May, he had failed to use them for a powerful counterattack. He may have owed his survival to the fact that on 15 May the Second Army at Stonne seemed to be performing somewhat better than on the previous two days, but that was only because the thrust of the German attack had shifted westwards. If Huntziger survived and Corap did not, it was because Corap had fewer protectors in high places. Huntziger went on to be a minister at Vichy.

Whatever the deficiencies of individual commanders, the real lesson of 1940 was the way in which almost the entire French High Command had been caught unawares by the new kind of warfare. If there were so many cases of French generals collapsing into tears it was because collectively— with very few exceptions—they had been utterly overwhelmed intellectually and psychologically. No one seems to have been more crushed by events than Blanchard who, according to Bloch, was urged by a corps commander: ‘Do anything you like, sir, but for Heaven’s sake do something.’ Bloch himself observed Blanchard ‘sitting in tragic immobility, saying nothing, doing nothing, but just gazing at the map spread on the table between us, as though hoping to find on it the decision which he was incapable of taking’. General Alan Brooke has an almost identical description:

He [Blanchard] was studying the map as I looked at him carefully and I soon gathered the impression that he might as well have been staring at a blank wall for all the benefit he gained out of it. He gave me the impression of a man whose brain had ceased to function, he was merely existing and hardly aware of what was going on around him. The blows that had fallen on us in quick succession had left him ‘punch drunk’ and unable to register events.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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