The Creation of Large French Armored Units III



When he returned to the Center of Higher Military Studies in 1939, Flavigny placed even greater emphasis on the offensive potential of the light mechanized division. As in the past, however, he stressed that the division should not be used for attacking fortified regions or strongly organized defenses. When he discussed the actual conduct of an attack, he stressed the need for artillery fire to be employed in successive bombardments, separated by approximately fifteen hundred meters, and argued that as many as one hundred armored vehicles could concentrate along a one-kilometer front. Though the successive objectives smacked of the methodical battle, Flavigny accepted a possible concentration of armored vehicles that was significantly greater than the fifty to seventy anticipated by many of his fellow officers. His presentation in 1939 also demonstrated the growing recognition by the cavalry of the greater offensive and defensive capability of the light mechanized division.

A new regulation for the cavalry appeared in 1939 and replaced the 1930 cavalry regulations and the 1935 provisional notice on the employment of motorized and mechanized units of the cavalry. The new regulation was undoubtedly the most forward-thinking regulation on mechanized cavalry or armor operations written by the French army during the interwar period. The regulation stated, “The cavalry finds its employment in all the phases of the battle….” Missions for which the cavalry was particularly appropriate were reconnaissance, security, and exploitation, as well as “intervention in the battle, which requires rapid displacement, through all types of terrain and over large spaces….”

As for the light mechanized divisions, these units, according to the regulation, could conduct an offensive either against an enemy flank or in a frontal attack. Flank attacks were preferred, but if a frontal attack was necessary, it could be conducted against an enemy who had not had the time to prepare his defenses, or against an enemy who did not possess all his defensive weaponry or units. After other elements made a penetration in an organized position, the mechanized division could conduct the final steps of the breakthrough, which would permit its rapid passage to the exploitation. When tanks more powerful than the S-35 (evidently the B-model tanks) reinforced the division, it could participate even more completely in the offensive by “penetrating rapidly and deeply into the enemy disposition.” As for the defense, the light mechanized division could reconstitute a front after an enemy breakthrough by occupation of a subsequent defensive position; it could also counterattack an enemy penetration. The regulation explained, “A light mechanized division is especially suited to fulfill such a mission.” If necessary, it could also occupy a static defense in the same fashion as an infantry division, but such employment was “exceptional” and required major reinforcements. Thus, while the light mechanized division was best suited for the traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance, security, and exploitation, it could also accomplish missions such as a breakthrough that heretofore had been considered beyond its capability. In every sense, the 1939 regulation anticipated a more mobile and wide-ranging battle than that anticipated by any other regulation. It was also more modern in the sense of recognizing the great potential of mechanized formations.

The 1939 cavalry regulations also recognized the requirement for complex command and control systems on a highly mobile battlefield. This can be seen in its discussion of the artillery. The regulation emphasized the need for the artillery to make rapid displacements and to provide fire support in the rapidly changing situations of cavalry combat. The regulation further noted, “The will to follow the fight closely and in sight, [and] the spirit of initiative of the subordinate leaders, are indispensable for obtaining all the possible output from this arm.” Although the regulation emphasized successive bounds and the progressive displacement of fire, it carefully noted the need to move quickly to prevent the enemy from reestablishing his defensive positions. Given the highly mobile nature of the battle envisaged, close cooperation was considered essential for success on the battlefield. The regulation stressed the need to establish liaison by making frequent contacts between the commanders, moving artillery observers forward, and employing liaison teams. Thus, the organizations and methods of the artillery were adapted to the cavalry’s style of operations, rather than adapting the cavalry’s methods to the artillery’s organization. The speed of the attack depended upon the speed of the mechanized formations, rather than on the speed of the infantry or the rate of displacement of the artillery.

The military hierarchy was greatly pleased with the light mechanized division. A note in November 1939 from the director of the cavalry to the General Staff described the division as an “extremely elaborate” and “ultra-modern” combat unit. In a March 1939 meeting of the Superior Council of War, Gamelin described the mechanized division as having “become armored divisions which have, in addition, flexibility.” In another meeting, in July 1939, he praised the divisions as “a fortunate solution, more fortunate than the Panzer division.”

The concept for employment of the light mechanized division, nevertheless, was clearly different from that of the soon-to-be formed French armored divisions. While the armored division was considered an organization highly suited for the massive employment of tanks within the methodical battle, the light mechanized division was designed to fulfill the traditional cavalry missions, as well as many of the missions that might be assigned an infantry or armored division, within a much more mobile and fluid battle. Hence, the armored division doctrine agreed much more with the overall French doctrine than did the mechanized cavalry doctrine. The French army accepted this difference, because the light mechanized divisions were designed to fight in front of or to the flank of units engaged in a methodical battle, not to be engaged with them. Throughout the evolution of the mechanized cavalry doctrine, this anomalous situation favored its development. Without suffering from the constraints of the philosophy of the methodical battle, the cavalry enthusiasts remained relatively free to obtain the maximum potential from the new organization.

When one compares the evolution of the doctrine of the armored units with that of the mechanized cavalry units, several other reasons appear to explain the more advanced nature of the cavalry doctrine. From the beginning, the traditional missions of the cavalry accorded more completely with the future missions of armored units. Instead of being dominated by the infantry and artillery concepts of firepower, centralization, and the methodical battle, the cavalry emphasized mobility, the rapid use of firepower, surprise, and immediate exploitation. Such concepts enabled the tank to fulfill its potential more completely.

At the same time, the cavalry units were extremely fortunate to have the dynamic influence of General Weygand to further their development. Weygand had long been a supporter of mechanization of the cavalry. When he became chief of the General Staff and then vice-president of the Superior Council of War, he was in a position to assist the cavalry in its efforts to create the light mechanized division. In contrast, the armor enthusiasts never had a supporter of the same power and influence as Weygand, who was vice-president of the Superior Council when the negative reports from the September 1932 tests at Mailly were rendered, and who did little to help the armor enthusiasts escape from the grasp of the infantry.

Even though General Estienne was clearly the “father” of the French tank, he never possessed influence beyond the narrow confines of the tank community. Despite his achievement, his power was limited even there. Throughout most of the interwar period, the inspector general of tanks was subordinate to the inspector general of infantry and never possessed the same degree of power. Similarly, the tank technical section was a sub-element of the Department of Infantry, whose influence it never escaped. Perhaps more importantly, the cavalry escaped the deadening influence of someone like General Martin, who as the inspector general of tanks failed to grasp the potential of the new weapon. In sum, the development of armored doctrine and vehicles clearly occurred under the thumb of the infantry, while that of the cavalry occurred in a much more autonomous and independent fashion. The French developed their armored doctrine within the infantry ideal, rather than developing something completely new and different.

The development of cavalry doctrine for larger unit operations was also favored by a longer period of experimentation. Following the creation of the first light mechanized division in the mid-1930s, doctrine for mechanized cavalry initially did not differ much from that for nonmechanized cavalry. Yet, as the years passed and as the cavalrymen gained more experience, the greater potential of the mechanized cavalry formations slowly became apparent. The cavalrymen reaped tremendous benefits from their willingness to form the light mechanized divisions before every piece of equipment had been produced. In contrast, France attempted relatively few field tests with large tank formations and did not actually form the first armored divisions until four months after the war began. And the High Command steadfastly clung to its demand for sufficient medium tanks to be on hand before the divisions were formed. In comparison to cavalry doctrine, armored doctrine was thus much more theoretical, and armored leaders had much less experience commanding and employing their units. While the tank units received severe criticisms during the several field tests for their inability to overrun a strongly defended enemy position, the cavalry never suffered from these criticisms. The cavalry conducted such a mission only under exceptional circumstances. Such missions were considered for the cavalry only after the light mechanized division had been formed. The technical design of its tanks also favored the cavalry. Having witnessed the tediously slow development of the B-model tank, the cavalry selected a simpler and, in fact, much more capable vehicle that could be mass produced. In that sense, it learned from the mistakes of the tank enthusiasts.

Another factor favoring the development of the cavalry tank concerned the mission of the light mechanized division. From the High Command’s viewpoint, the operation for which the division was particularly suited was providing a strong covering force in an area such as Belgium. If the French army moved into Belgium at the beginning of a war, the light mechanized division could move forward rapidly and conduct a very strong mobile defense against a sudden incursion of enemy armored vehicles. The division could also cover the movement and deployment of the motorized divisions. On the other hand, the armored division was primarily associated with the offense and with assisting the offensive maneuver of larger infantry units. If it were necessary to employ tanks in the defense, units smaller than a division, in the French view, were more appropriate than larger ones. Consequently, the mechanized cavalry divisions coincided more nearly with the perceived needs of France than did the armored divisions and were formed much earlier. Gamelin reflected this belief in the July 1939 meeting of the Superior Council of War when he described the light mechanized division as a more “fortunate” solution than the panzer division.

France’s movement toward mechanization was thus characterized more by its fragmentation and diversity than by its uniformity or clarity of purpose. The French concluded that an all-purpose battle tank could not be created, since the characteristics of the ideal tank could never be combined in one tank. A high-speed, heavily armored, low-cost vehicle was technically impossible to create. A tank to accompany the infantry was developed through infantry channels, a medium tank was developed through the energetic efforts of General Estienne and his disciples, and a cavalry tank was developed, naturally, by the cavalry. Each development channel sought to produce a tank with characteristics designed to maximize its potential utilization with that particular branch, whether to accompany the infantry, act as a main battle tank, or perform in a cavalry role. And each channel produced a variety of test vehicles and prototypes which consumed enormous quantities of precious resources and intellectual energies. None of these channels ever seriously doubted that the tank was an important addition to the battlefield. The significant debate concerned how the tank was to be used on the battlefield, and the differing concepts existing among the several institutions about employment prevented the emergence of a single, dominant idea on the role of armor. For that reason, the debate over the function of the individual tank was an inseparable part of the debate over the formation of large armored units.

The debate over the proper function of the tank also subordinated the technology of the tank to the already existing doctrine. In the normal fashion of the French High Command, each branch decided what it wanted the tank to do and then energetically pursued the construction of a tank designed and equipped to accomplish this end. In the case of the infantry tank, the French designed a tank specifically limited by the doctrinal constraints of the infantry and artillery intensive methodical battle. In the case of the medium tank, the armor enthusiasts became captured by the attractiveness of the “perfect” tank, which, unfortunately, was almost beyond the capability of French industry to produce and definitely beyond its capability to produce in the same mass numbers as the light infantry tank. In the case of the cavalry tank, the French designed a highly mobile and capable tank that doctrinally but not technologically was ill-prepared for anything other than the traditional cavalry mission. Throughout the debate, there was never a willingness to compromise and combine limited and precious resources into a single effort for creating a tank relying on the most modern technology and a highly flexible doctrine. France thus dissipated her efforts, for she had decided early in the 1920s that the “tank to do everything” did not exist.

In fairness, one must admit that concentrating all her efforts in one area might not have changed France’s fortunes. When one seeks change in a bureaucratic system, one does not open closed minds or move projects forward simply by creating a more centralized and disciplined system; creative ideas or forward thinking do not necessarily prosper in such a system. For France, a more highly centralized effort may have resulted in an even greater dominance of the methodical battle ideal and a further dilution of the medium tank and cavalry tank programs. Since only an extremely small portion of the army’s hierarchy recognized the potential of mobile warfare or approached questions of technology and doctrine from that perspective, no real possibility of a completely different approach actually existed. In that sense, the failure was both conceptual and institutional. To suggest otherwise is to give credit where credit is not due.

When the battle of France was fought in May-June 1940, the allocation of French tanks reflected the army’s doctrine. According to the figures given by Lt. Col. Charles de Cossé-Brissac, the French army had twenty-five battalions of accompanying tanks on the northern and northeastern frontiers on 10 May 1940. This was a total of 1,125 tanks. The three light mechanized divisions had a total of 582 tanks, and the five cavalry divisions had a total of 110 tanks. There were also three armored divisions with a total of 624 tanks, with more than half of these being H-39 instead of B-model tanks.

Although these figures do not include the fourth armored and fourth light mechanized divisions, which were formed after 10 May, almost half the French tanks were employed in an infantry support role. Less than 25 percent were employed in the French armored divisions, two of which were formed in January and one in April 1940. When these inexperienced divisions entered combat, they were inadequately prepared for the mobile warfare the Germans forced upon them. Their late formation and lack of preparation was a direct consequence of the French army’s inability to understand the extra dimension mobile armor added to the battlefield.

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