Contrary to the myth propagated by the newsreels, which portrayed the German army as a sort of mechanized juggernaut, it was highly dependent on horses for transport. When Hitler moved against the Russians in 1941 his army had 3,350 tanks and 650,000 horses.
France’s confidence was buttressed by the fact that the country had at last secured a British alliance. It was believed that in the long term the superior combined resources of the Allies would prevail as they had in 1918. In fact in the long run it could be said that this strategy was vindicated. The Allies had planned for a defeat for Germany in, probably, 1943; it came in 1945. When de Gaulle went to London in 1940 and declared that the defeat of France was only the first round in what was in reality a world war, he was remaining faithful to the entire Allied strategy. In this perspective, the Battle of France can be seen not as an episode disconnected from the war that followed, but as part of that larger conflict. In the Battle of France the Germans lost 1,428 planes—28 per cent of the total—and this significantly weakened the Luftwaffe before the Battle of Britain. What the Allies had not expected was that while they were preparing to win the long war, France would lose a short one. To some extent that defeat can be blamed on the deficiencies of Allied coordination—between Britain and France, between France, Britain, and Belgium. For example, the French believed that the Belgians were better prepared to defend the Gembloux gap than was in fact the case. Coordination between the BEF and the French was execrable once the retreat had begun. The key issue, however, was not lack of coordination, but the simple fact that the British could only offer very limited help in the early stages. Ironside 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.’
That does not mean that the French reproaches against the British were all well founded. The British made a considerable contribution in the air, and did as much as was possible while retaining what was necessary for the security of the British Isles. The British lost a total of almost 1,000 aircraft in the Battle of France. And even if they had been willing to sacrifice even more, at the risk of jeopardizing their security for the sake of the alliance, there is no chance that this would have significantly changed the outcome of the battle. Despite German air superiority, the Battle of France was not won or lost in the air. As Air Chief Marshal Barratt, commander of the AASF, put it: ‘the RAF could not win the war if the French infantry had lost it.’
Why did the French infantry lose it? Was German military strength so overwhelming, German military prowess so superior, that there was nothing France could have done about it? There are, it must be said, many myths about Germany in 1940, beginning with the elusive notion of ‘Blitzkrieg’. The myth runs as follows: Blitzkrieg (lightning war) was a strategy conceived to allow Germany to overcome its industrial inferiority in relation to the combined economic strength of the Allies by winning a series of successive lightning knockout military victories. Another advantage of this method was to make it unnecessary for Hitler to shift the German economy onto a total war footing, something he was reluctant to do for political and social reasons. But in the view of the German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser, who has most recently and exhaustively studied the notion of Blitzkrieg, there is no validity in this account. 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. Why otherwise did the High Command try on various occasions, with Hitler’s backing, to slow the panzers down, finally doing so on 24 May with the Haltbefehl? 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.
Germany’s success in France did lead to the adoption of Blitzkrieg at a politico-strategic level in 1941 with the invasion of Russia. Thus, to quote Frieser: ‘[T]he [French] campaign was an improvised but successful Blitzkrieg while that against Russia was a planned but unsuccessful one.’ Blitzkrieg, at a politico-strategic level, was a backward-looking denial of the realities of modern industrial warfare. The war as a whole ended up more like the one that the Allies had expected to fight in 1940 than the one the Germans hoped to fight in 1941.
Where the idea of ‘Blitzkrieg’ did inform the campaign of 1940 was at the tactical and operational level. It derived from the ‘infiltration tactics’ pioneered by the Germans in 1918 as a way of breaking out of the stalemate of the Western Front. After a short and intensive artillery bombardment, groups of specially trained assault units or ‘storm-troopers’ had been sent, under cover of smoke and shells, to infiltrate the enemy lines, bypassing pockets of resistance if necessary. This tactic proved extremely successful, but insufficient mobility made it impossible to exploit the advantage gained sufficiently rapidly. In the 1920s, Guderian and others worked on how to overcome this problem by using modern military technology such as tanks, planes, and radio communications. One key element in their thinking was the need to develop close cooperation between different arms, especially between air and land forces.
Another source of Blitzkrieg was the writings of British military theorists like Fuller and Liddell Hart, who argued that modern technology could be used for the ‘strategy of indirect approach’. The idea was to use armoured force to penetrate deep into the enemy rear in order to destroy its command and control systems. Instead of a clash of front-line troops aiming for a battle of annihilation, the objective would be to hit at the enemy’s ‘brain’. The campaign of 1940 certainly seems in many respects to have been a textbook example of Blitzkrieg in this sense, although it is unclear to what extent Guderian had been influenced, if at all, by the ‘strategy of indirect approach’. Or was he more like Molière’s M. Jourdain who wrote prose without knowing it? But one must not exaggerate the novelty of all the German methods in 1940. Apart from the crossing of the Meuse at Sedan, there were few, if any, examples where close air support— the combination of Stukas and Panzers—was decisive (it played no part in Rommel’s crossing at Dinant where the Luftwaffe did not play an important role). And even at Sedan the initial success was, of course, due not to the tanks—which did not start to cross until the early hours of 14 May— but to the professionalism of a small number of infantry units, and to the inspirational leadership of a few infantry commanders like Balck and Rubarth.
Nonetheless one must not underestimate the vulnerability of the Germans in 1940. The German plan could so easily have gone wrong. During the crossing of the Ardennes, there were major traffic problems and infantry units got tangled up with one another. The Germans were very lucky that the French were so blissfully unaware of this and did not take the opportunity to bomb them, increasing the chaos. The German newsreels of the period depict young, bronzed, disciplined troops marching through the cornfields of France like conquering demigods. These images are so powerful that it is all too easy to characterize Germany as a ruthlessly efficient and militarized society in which every sinew was strained for war, with an imaginative and forward-thinking military command, and highly modernized armed forces. And yet almost all of these judgements are highly questionable.
It is a commonplace among historians of Nazi Germany that the regime’s administration was chaotic and inefficient, not least in the organization of rearmament. Although the Germans had a considerable head start over the Allies in this respect, by 1940 the French armaments industry was in many areas out-producing the German. As far as the modernized army is concerned, 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. Most of the German tanks at the start of the war were still light Panzer Is and IIs, and many of these had broken down during the Polish campaign. As for the cooperation between air and ground forces, in fact only one flying unit of the Luftwaffe was dedicated to this purpose, although the Stukas, which were intended for a wider range of operations, could be called upon to play this role. As far as the forward-thinking High Command is concerned, there were many high-level German commanders who were extremely worried by the audacity of commanders like Guderian.