What kind of war was the French army expecting and how was it intending to use its arms? It is commonly asserted that, through a mixture of complacency, conservatism, and intellectual laziness, the French had failed to modernize their military thinking and were preparing to fight the previous war again. In 1950, the parliamentary inquiry into the causes of France’s defeat concluded: ‘[T]he General Staff, retired on its Mount Sinai among its revealed truths and the vestiges of its vanished glories, devoted all its efforts to patching up an organization outmoded by the facts.’ Was this true?
The main charge is that the French military had not adapted to the idea of mobile warfare and had neglected the possibility of grouping tanks together so that they could be deployed offensively and autonomously rather than playing an infantry support role as in the Great War. One of the earliest advocates of using tanks like this was General Jean-Baptiste Estienne, the so-called ‘father of the tank’, who started in 1919 to argue for the development of heavy breakthrough tanks that could be deployed independently of the infantry. As Inspector of Tanks between 1921 and 1927, Estienne instigated studies of the development of armour. Although he had a decreasing influence on military policy, the prototype heavy tanks that he commissioned in 1921 were the ancestor of the B1. Without him, France would probably not have had a heavy tank ready at the start of the 1930s.
The modernization of the army started at the beginning of the 1930s under the inspiration of General Weygand, even before the first rearmament programmes had been adopted. In 1930 Weygand launched a programme to motorize seven infantry divisions and he initiated the creation of an armoured division in the cavalry in October 1933. The setting up of this ‘light mechanized division’ (DLM) meant that, far from being mired in the past, France had the world’s first standing armoured division (two years before Germany). At this stage, however, the cavalry lacked a really powerful combat vehicle and the DLM sounded more impressive on paper than it was in reality. The SOMUA tank was developed precisely to meet this need, and once these started to come off the production lines the DLMs had powerful armour at their disposal.8 Even so, the first DLM was not fully operational until the start of 1938. A second DLM was created in 1937 and a third in February 1940. In addition, the five remaining cavalry divisions had been partially motorized and consisted of a mixture of horse and motorized vehicles (‘oil and oats’). These developments did meet with some resistance from traditionalists like General René Altmayer, who thought that the cavalry could best carry out its tasks with horse units, and worried about an excessive dependence on petrol. But there were ardent advocates of modernization like General Jean Flavigny, who had been involved in the development of the SOMUA tanks and became the commander of the first DLM when it was set up.
The DLMs were designed to carry out the cavalry’s traditional tasks of reconnaissance, screening operations, and forward delaying actions. They were not intended to be able to break through the enemy lines. For this task it was necessary to establish more heavily armoured divisions, capable of acting autonomously. But progress towards this objective was very slow. In September 1932 experimental manoeuvres took place to study the possibility of developing heavy armoured divisions. The problem was that since at this time the army only possessed three heavy (B1) tanks, the manouevres had to be carried out by combining these with lighter infantry accompanying tanks (H35, R35). These two different kinds of tanks could not really be used together, and the exercise was considered to have been a failure. Thus, for the moment, the army abandoned the attempt to develop heavy divisions and concentrated mainly on the production of light infantry support tanks. On the other hand, the B1s still continued to roll slowly off the production lines, even if there was no clear idea how they were to be deployed. Given that the French military had at this stage no doctrine for the use of heavy tanks, it is a testimony to the continuing legacy of Estienne that any were being produced at all. But this was also a drawback. It meant that the specifications of these vehicles had not been drawn up to meet the requirements of evolving military doctrine, but that the doctrine would have to adapt itself to the tanks that were being produced (the opposite of the situation of the cavalry where the SOMUA had been designed to meet specific requirements).
The most eloquent and public plea for the development of independent armoured divisions came in 1934 with the publication of the book Vers une armée de métier [Towards a Professional Army] by the relatively unknown Colonel Charles de Gaulle. In 1940 this book was translated into English with the title The Army of the Future. The cover bore the words: ‘A 1934 Prophecy! France disregarded it! Germany worked on it!’ In many respects, de Gaulle’s book was prescient, but it probably did little to advance the cause he was advocating. Indeed de Gaulle possibly even harmed his case by linking the technical issue of tank deployment to the politically sensitive issue of the professional army. While the modernization of the army might have required the recruitment of some specialized personnel—radio operators, mechanics—it did not necessarily imply full professionalization. By making this point the centre of his argument, de Gaulle was bound to antagonize politicians who were suspicious of professional armies for political reasons. De Gaulle’s book is indeed suffused with a romantic and almost mystical celebration of the military vocation and the role it could play in national regeneration. This was not the best way to win converts.
Within the High Command, however, there were others pushing more discreetly, and more effectively, for armoured divisions. The keenest advocates were Generals Pierre Héring and Gaston Billotte; the most sceptical was General Dufieux, Inspector of Infantry. The slow production of B1s continued to hinder the holding of trials, and provided arguments for the conservatives. As Dufieux said after the war: ‘[W]e were able to lay down our regulations only … according to the number and possibility of tanks which we possessed.’ It is difficult to say where Gamelin stood. He was to be found arguing for armoured divisions from 1936, but other comments he made underplayed their importance. In 1939 he remarked that ‘armoured divisions … can handle local operations, like reducing a pocket, but not an offensive action’. He told the army commissions of the Chamber and Senate in July 1939: ‘One must not exaggerate the importance of mechanized divisions. They can play an auxiliary role in enlarging a breach, but not the major role that the Germans seem to expect of them.’ Nonetheless in December 1938 the Army War Council (CSG) finally decided to establish two heavy armoured divisions known as DCRs (Divisions Cuirassées de Réserve [Reserve Armoured Divisions]). Continued bottlenecks in production meant that this order could not immediately be translated into reality, and as a result little was done to disseminate information on the employment of tanks. The contents of the ‘provisional notice on the use of tanks’ that had been drafted in 1938 was kept so secret that General Georges felt compelled to write to the General Staff in January 1940: ‘[T]hey cannot remain secret indefinitely if one wants them to become sufficiently known.’
At the declaration of war, the first DCR was still not ready. But in the light of the German use of tanks in Poland, it was decided in December 1939, on Billotte’s initiative, to create two more. By the start of May 1940, three DCRs were in existence, although the shortage of B1bis tanks meant that they had to be partially equipped with less powerful vehicles that had been designed to accompany the infantry. A fourth DCR was created in the heat of battle on 15 May. Even if one includes this fourth unit, the result was that, of the 2,900 French tanks in 1940, only about 960 were organized in armoured divisions (3 DLMs and 4 DCRs). The others were dispersed through the rest of the army in infantry support roles. The Germans, on the other hand, concentrated all their 2,900 tanks into ten Panzer divisions grouped into Panzer Corps. The DCRs and the DLMs comprised each on average about 160 tanks (about half of them light infantry tanks); a Panzer division averaged about 270 tanks.
Despite the decision to establish the DCRs, French army doctrine allotted them only a limited role. They could launch blows against an enemy that was not well organized defensively or had already been undermined by other action, they could operate in conjunction with the DLMs in counterattacks, and they could exploit a successful offensive. But whatever kind of operations they undertook, they were always to function under corps or army control—that is, as part of larger infantry units. In other words, they had to fit into the army’s prevailing doctrine, which was encapsulated by the idea of the ‘methodical battle’ (bataille conduite). The ‘methodical battle’ started from the premiss that in modern warfare the strength of firepower bestowed an immense advantage upon the defender. Massing the amount of material necessary to carry out a successful offensive was a complex logistical operation that required meticulous preparation. What the army wanted to avoid above all were improvised ‘encounter battles’ where moving armies came upon each other without having prepared their positions. Instead the emphasis of French doctrine was on a tightly controlled battle where decision-making was centralized at the highest levels. This was in stark contrast to German doctrine, which encouraged initiatives by lower-level commanders.
If the enemy managed to break through the front, the French response was known as colmatage, plugging the gap by moving reserves into the path of the attacking troops in order to slow down their advance and restore a continuous front. Infantry remained the key to victory: ‘[P]rotected and accompanied by its own guns and by the guns of the artillery, and occasionally preceded by combat tanks and aviation … the infantry conquers the ground, occupies it, organizes it and holds it.’ These were the words of the 1921 Provisional Instruction on the Tactical Employment of Large Units. This famous document, which codified French doctrine, was revised in 1936, but this new draft asserted that the 1921 version, ‘fixed by our eminent leaders’ must ‘remain our charter’. Having establised this, it did go on to offer some qualifications. It noted the ‘acceleration of battle’ and affirmed that ‘the offensive is the pre-eminent mode of action’ and the defensive the ‘attitude momentarily chosen by a commander who does not feel able to take the offensive’. The document concluded: ‘[H]owever strong fortified fronts, the decision … will only be obtained by manoeuvre in which speed and mobility are essential.’ All this seemed to embody a characteristically Gamelinesque tension between two positions, between the overwhelming imperative of attack and the inherent superiority of defence. The circle was squared by the concept of ‘methodical battle’, which described the conditions in which a successful offensive might occur but set almost impossibly tough prerequisites for success.
In the end, then, while it would not be true to say that the French army in 1940 had learnt nothing and was planning to fight the last war again—the French army of 1940 was very different from that of 1918—or that the military were not engaged in intensive discussions about the most appropriate ways of modernizing the army, the changes which had occurred were basically incremental adjustments, albeit important ones, of a corpus of doctrine that had not fundamentally altered.
At the beginning of the war the French Army had no tank divisions whatsoever and the British only one. As has been stressed here, German tanks were not always superior to those they faced and were often markedly inferior. The key to German success on the battlefield was in the tactical doctrine governing their use, as well as in training and leadership.
The Germans were successful in their initial campaigns because they worked out a flexible system that combined infantry, artillery, tanks, and supporting aviation in one integrated military effort. Unit commanders had great flexibility, and they could concentrate forces quickly to exploit any situation that might develop. Command and control between units and even individual tanks was facilitated by the efficient use of radio.
The French, regarded by many observers as having the most powerful army in Europe, in fact lacked the ability to employ their military strength promptly and to good advantage. It was primarily a failure of doctrine rather than any equipment shortcomings that did in the French. The French Army divided control of its tanks between the infantry and cavalry. Infantry commanders saw the tanks solely as a means of infantry support; the cavalry regarded them chiefly in a reconnaissance role. Another consequence of this division was a multiplicity of designs.
Following the declaration of war, the French were slow to mobilize, and in the two weeks it required them to call up reservists and bring artillery from storage, it became clear that Poland was already collapsing. Even so, a vigorous French thrust would have carried to the Rhine with tremendous consequences for the course of the war, as the German strategic plan committed the vast bulk of German strength, some 60 divisions, to Poland and left only a weak force to hold the Rhineland. The latter numbered only 40 divisions (36 of which were untrained), with no tanks, little artillery, and few aircraft. The French moved belatedly and timidly and, after securing a few villages, withdrew the few divisions committed to the effort. Senior French and British commanders had rejected the new theories of high-speed armor warfare. They persisted in viewing tanks as operating in support of infantry, to be spread over the front in small packets rather than being massed in entire divisions.
The Polish campaign of September 1939 revealed the errors in Allied thought concerning armor. In their invasion the Germans pressed into service all available tanks, hoping that sheer numbers and their employment en masse would make up for any equipment and armament shortcomings. As noted earlier, in all they had some 2,900 tanks, most of them PzKpfw Is and IIs.
The success of the German blitzkrieg lay not in numbers of tanks but in the formation of combined arms teams. The problem in World War I had been the inability of an attacker’s reserve formations to close quickly once a breech had been created in an enemy’s lines; the attacker’s artillery would also have to be repositioned to support a further advance. The new German theory of high-speed warfare called on mechanized reserves and artillery to move at the speed of the tanks, all supported by aircraft, greatly compressing the time line in favor of the attackers.
General Heinz Guderian, who developed the blitzkrieg, saw the need to use the tanks en masse in divisions for breakthrough shock power rather than dispersing them. German forces were to locate weak points in the enemy battle line, then build up strength at these points, holding them with infantry and antitank guns, hoping to lure enemy tanks into attacking and running into the more powerful antitank guns. Such tactics would save the German tanks for the exploitation role.
These reinforced points would serve as pivots, from which the tanks would achieve fast, sudden breakthroughs without warning or the benefit of preliminary bombardment. Infantry would move with the tanks in a column of tracked vehicles and trucks. The whole idea was to keep moving and to stage deep penetrations and encirclements of enemy forces. The attacking forces would be largely self-contained for a matter of three to four days. Vital to German success was control of the air, ensured by having the world’s most powerful air force. The Luftwaffe was basically a tactical air force, developed for close ground support, and the key to this was the “flying artillery” provided by the Ju 87 Stuka dive-bomber. Although it later proved vulnerable to antiaircraft guns and high-performance fighters, the Stuka’s early opponents had few of those types of equipment, and it proved to be a highly mobile and accurate artillery platform that greatly aided the advance of the tanks below.
During the Polish campaign, enemy dispositions played into the Germans’ hands. Polish forces were still in the process of mobilization, thanks to the British insistence that the Poles provide no excuse for the Germans to invade. Also, Polish Army leaders placed the bulk of their forces far forward. They were unwilling to yield territory to the Germans (indeed, they expected to carry the war into Germany themselves), but in such forward positions they were more easily cut off, surrounded, and destroyed. Poland was also at sharp geographical disadvantage. Attacked by German forces on three sides, it in fact had little chance. With France slow to move, and then only with a small force, and with the Soviet Union invading Poland from the east two weeks after the initial German invasion (in accordance with a secret arrangement with Germany), Poland succumbed after one month.
Airpower played such an important role in the German success in Poland that the German Army then assigned each panzer division its own air force element. The Germans also learned from the Polish campaign that it was difficult for truck-mounted infantry to keep up with the tanks and that it was impossible for them to move across open country. Trucks were vulnerable even to enemy rifles and machine guns. Accompanying infantry required cross-country mobility and some armor protection, and this meant increasing reliance on armored personnel carriers and other tracked vehicles.
One often overlooked factor in the German success in Poland, as well as in the May-June 1940 campaign against the Low Countries and France, was the short distances involved and thus the assurance of adequate resupply of fuel and ammunition. The blitzkrieg functioned well in the dry, flat terrain and the relatively short distances of Poland and the well-developed road network of France in 1940. It broke down completely in the vast distances and poor transportation system of the Soviet Union in 1941.
The Allies understood the important role tanks could play in stiffening the resolve of infantry. They also introduced some numbers, albeit insufficient, of assault guns and self-propelled antitank guns working with the infantry. Such weapons came to play a key role in armored warfare, as did development of larger high-velocity guns to defeat improved armor protection.