The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West; Lt. Colonel Karl-Heinz Frieser (translated from the German by John T. Greenwood); Naval Institute Press; First Printing edition (November 10, 2005); ISBN-13: 978-1591142942

The stunning defeat inflicted by Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe on Allied forces in France during the early days of World War II — even after seven decades — continues to be a subject of abiding interest to both professional and amateur students of military history, alike. Given the decisive success of the German campaign against the forces of the British and French Entente in May-June, 1940, and the tragic consequences worldwide of France’s capitulation after only seven short weeks of fighting, it could hardly be otherwise. The speed and lop-sidedness of the German victory over an Allied force that was technologically equal and numerically either equal or even superior to the attacking Germans, in every category excepting only that of airpower, is still perplexing, if not almost incomprehensible, when viewed in the abstract. This campaign was also — much more so than the earlier, equally rapid German victories against Poland, Denmark, and Norway — the source both of the popular term, and of the legend of German “blitzkrieg” warfare.

In “The Blitzkrieg Legend,” Lt. Colonel Karl-Heinz Frieser examines, using the eyes of both a trained historian and military professional, the often misunderstood political and military factors that shaped the battlefield events of May-June 1940, and that ultimately led to the decisive defeat of the Allied forces in France after less than two months of full-scale fighting. To organize his narrative, the author divides his analysis of the campaign into two basic sections: one part inventories and then assesses the larger, often compelling strategic considerations that helped guide the preparations and planning of both sides prior to the onset of the Battle for France; the other, and in my view, far more convincing portion of his narrative examines, in wonderful detail, the varied and yet critically-important operational factors that served, on the one hand, to doom the Allies to defeat, and, on the other, to propel the Germans to victory.

The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the WestLt. Colonel Frieser begins his study, quite reasonably, by assessing the various and sometimes conflicting strategic factors that largely determined the expectations and prewar preparations of the military and political leaders of both the Entente and the Third Reich prior to the German offensive in May 1940. These are, of course, generally well-known to students of World War II; however, the author’s take on these factors is interesting. For example, because of their battlefield experiences on the Western Front a generation earlier, Frieser argues — correctly, in my view — that the senior political and military leadership of the Entente was utterly committed to the same defensive, linear style of warfare that, after four bloody years, had finally ground out a victory over the Central Powers a little over twenty years before. Thus, the author points out, even the Entente plan to advance into Belgium and Holland as soon as the German offensive began — General Gamelin’s infamous Dyle-Breda Plan — was actually intended primarily as a defensive measure: first, to deny the Luftwaffe airfields in the Low Countries from which it could launch bombing attacks against England; and second, to move the probable sites of major fighting away from France and into Flanders. Any major Allied drive into Germany, itself, was considered by the Entente high command to be utterly out of the question before 1941, at the earliest.

Moreover, a rigid passivity, although damaging enough in its own right, was not the only problem facing the Allied generals as 1939 turned into 1940, and winter gave way to spring. The generally poor morale of the reserve divisions of the French army, the author notes, had deteriorated even further during the long period of the “Phony War” and this, undoubtedly, was a contributing factor to the Allied defeat in 1940; but even more important, Frieser claims, was the all-pervasive faith, among virtually all ranks in both the French and British armies (despite the protestations of Allied armored advocates like J. F. C. Fuller and Charles de Gaulle), of the battlefield supremacy and virtual invincibility of the static defense. This belief, so imbedded in the psyches of both the Entente soldiers and their leaders, made the prospect of a German breakthrough and a sudden change from static to mobile warfare utterly unthinkable. Nor were the Allies' expectations regarding the nature of the war to come their only miscalculation.

The author also notes that the political leaders of the Entente, with little in the way of concrete evidence to support their optimistic appraisal of the effects of the recently-instituted Allied naval blockade against Germany, nonetheless foolishly clung to the hope that Hitler could be toppled, and the Third Reich defeated without any requirement that costly, large-scale combat operations be mounted by Entente forces. In short, that somehow Germany could be defeated without the need for any real Allied ground offensive action at all. This fantasy, like most of the other assumptions that underpinned Allied planning during the period between the fall of Poland and the start of the Battle for France, would, in May and June of 1940, be shown to be completely and tragically wrong.

The officers of the German high command — seemingly just as intent on refighting the last war as their Entente counterparts — early on proposed to Hitler a plan for the impending campaign against France that was, at its heart, little more than an updated version of the same “Schlieffen Plan” that had previously failed to save Germany from defeat in the First World War. This initial operational blueprint, referred to as the “Halder Plan” — after the head of the Oberkommado Des Heeres (OKH), General Franz Halder — called for a broad front drive through the Low Countries and into France that, it was hoped, would carry the Wehrmacht to the east bank of the Somme River outside of Paris by the end of the first campaign season. The offensive could then, the traditionally-minded OKH planners argued, be renewed as soon as suitable weather arrived in the spring of 1941. Lt. Colonel Frieser makes much of the early communiqués that flew back and forth between the OKH and the Führer during the months immediately following the fall of Poland to support his thesis that no one in the Third Reich’s senior military establishment, from Hitler on down, ever envisioned anything but a drawn out attritional struggle once German forces crossed into France in the spring of 1940.

von Manstein
This assessment, however, tends to unravel when considered in the light of careful post-war analysis of actual German pre-invasion industrial policy on the part of scholars like Matthew Cooper, whose own book, “The German Army: 1933-1945”, examines the topic of German wartime production in great detail. Thus, contrary to Frieser’s argument, Cooper’s view is that the industrial output of the Third Reich — for both political and administrative reasons — was neither organized for nor capable of supporting a major attrition war in 1940, particularly one of long duration. This, according to writers like Cooper, led the conservatives within the German army to reluctantly accept the potential advantages of mechanized operations as a style of warfare, not so much out of choice, as out of necessity. And on this issue, at least, Frieser and Cooper are largely in agreement. However, in the course of his writing, the author goes further than the facts would seem to merit when he attempts to paper over the serious arguments that early-on flared up between Hitler and the OKH, and even between senior officers within the Wehrmacht, over the operational role of mechanized forces in the coming offensive against France.

von Rundstedt
Interestingly, the ultimate outcomes of these disagreements within the German high command are actually not difficult to find. A look, for example, at the historical record — uncolored by Lt. Colonel Frieser’s possible institutional (pro-OKH) biases — suggests that the German Führer, along with senior generals like Gerd von Rundstedt, were quick to reject the Halder Plan because of its obvious failure to properly utilize the mobility and shock power of mechanized forces; more importantly, it also seems clear that they were vehement, too, in rejecting the OKH plan’s underlying, attritional premise. In fact, it was precisely because of the German Führer’s dissatisfaction with Halder’s original invasion scenario that von Rundstedt’s deputy, Erich von Manstein, was commissioned by his superior, with the full backing of Hitler, to come up with a more decisive, less costly alternative, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). The Manstein Plan was breathtaking in its audacity: instead of a conservative broad-front advance through Belgium and Holland powered by infantry and artillery, it called, instead, for a narrow breakthrough of the French center at Sedan followed by a rapid armored penetration into the Allied rear. In short, the Fall Gelb operational blueprint, unlike the Halder Plan, capitalized on the capabilities of the panzer/Luftwaffe battlefield partnership that had recently demonstrated its effectiveness in the war with Poland. Thus, starting with a decisive outcome as its goal, Manstein’s approach called for secondary attacks against the Low Countries and the Maginot Line, but directed the main German force (and the bulk of the mechanized formations) to pass through the Ardennes and to attack the thinly-held French positions on the Meuse as quickly as possible. As military plans go, it was an extraordinary gamble, but it was a gamble that Hitler, clearly, was prepared to take.

Evolution of Fall Gelb Plan
What much of the preceding discussion seems to suggest is that, although many of Lt. Colonel Frieser’s conclusions regarding the economic and political factors underlying Germany’s war effort in 1940 are quite interesting and well presented, the author’s narrative nonetheless breaks down when it comes to the credit (or lack thereof) that he ascribes both to the strategic focus of Fall Gelb, and to Hitler’s role in rejecting the conservative battle plan of the traditionalist officers of the OKH in favor of the far more daring approach of Manstein. Given these facts, I personally find Lt. Colonel Frieser’s discussion of the pre-war preparations, on the part of both sides, to be the least persuasive part of his otherwise carefully-crafted analysis of the campaign.

Adolf Hitler
Nowadays, it seems that any study of the 1940 German offensive against France will, at some point, be obliged to address and then refute the many misconceptions that — in the popular mind, at least — have come to attach themselves to this extraordinary military campaign. This, the author does both clearly and expeditiously. Thus, the myth of superior German military preparedness is dispensed with: the combat-worthiness and morale of many of the French reserve divisions was, Frieser acknowledges, without doubt substandard; however, it was also true that a substantial portion of the Wehrmacht, because of its rapid expansion in size by nearly 2 million men between the end of the Polish campaign and the start of Fall Gelb, also suffered from widespread and serious deficiencies in training and equipment, particularly among its green, second and third wave (Welle) divisions. Moreover, if it were not for the trucks and armored vehicles looted from a subjugated Czechoslovakia, records show that the OKH would probably have been forced, by the spring of 1940, to convert several of its motorized divisions back into “leg” divisions because of a lack of replacement motor transport. In addition, the author disposes of the popular but mistaken idea that German forces enjoyed a significant technological advantage over those of the Entente. Quite the contrary, he says; like other writers before him, Lt. Colonel Frieser disputes this common misconception by pointing to, among other things, the marked superiority of Allied tanks, such as the Char B, in terms both of their armored protection and of the caliber of their main guns, especially when matched against the German Pzk II and III. This, by the way, is an all too familiar argument that is too infrequently qualified by the equally accurate observation that, whatever liabilities the lighter armored but more nimble German armored vehicles may have displayed during the French campaign, these disadvantages were more than overcome by the panzers’ cross-country speed and by their exceptionally effective battlefield partnership with the Luftwaffe. These two factors, the author and I both agree, turned out to be critical to German success in May, 1940; certainly, other factors also played a crucial role in the campaign; but without the addition of these two ingredients to the “blitzkrieg” recipe, the speed and decisiveness of the German victory would have probably been rendered far less certain, if not impossible.

von Kleist
In the end, I am inclined to think that the basic thesis of Lt. Colonel Frieser’s strategic narrative — that Hitler and the OKH were as surprised as General Gamelin and the Entente high command by the pace and magnitude of the German invasion plan’s early successes — is only partially convincing; however, when the author finally takes on the role of the pure military historian and discards that of the politically-correct historical apologist, the whole tenor of “The Blitzkrieg Legend” changes; and changes dramatically for the better. Thus, while the strategic portion of the book can occasionally be disappointing, the description and analysis of the actual operations of Panzergruppe Kleist, and more particularly of the almost hour-by-hour movement and combat of Guderian’s panzer corps, and even of Rommel’s “Ghost” division, are all absolutely top notch. For the patient reader, once Kleist’s panzergruppe debouches from the Ardennes and rolls onto the east bank of the Meuse River, the action becomes virtually nonstop, and the author’s prose captures the speed and excitement of the drive across the Meuse and into the Allied rear with extraordinary clarity; it also conveys the audacity and the operational brilliance of the panzer commanders spearheading the drive exceptionally well.

There are several reasons, I suspect, why the author’s operational analysis is so much more convincing and exciting than his strategic commentary: first, I think that because Lt. Colonel Frieser is a professional soldier as well as being a trained historiographer, he brings a level of expertise to the battlefield aspect of his subject that is seldom found among even the best of civilian scholars; second, and probably more importantly, the author, for the first time that I know of, makes very extensive use of French primary sources along with the voluminous, but often familiar German source materials that have largely been picked over by previous writers, already. If there is a single irksome element in this part of the narrative, it is the author’s penchant to second-guess — based, of course, on 20/20 hindsight — the several attempts by the OKH to rein-in the panzers long enough for forced-marching infantry units (still organized and equipped much as they had been in World War I) to catch up to Guderian’s leading mechanized elements. Clearly, even at this early stage in “blitzkrieg” warfare, the armored commanders in the field already realized that speed and surprise were their most powerful weapons. However, to the senior German generals well to the rear, the possibility that the local armored commanders might overreach and, by so doing, convert an obvious and decisive operational success into a sudden, unexpected defeat was, right up until the end, a constant worry. Thus, the order — which was actually given by Gerd von Rundstedt and not by Hitler, as is commonly thought — to halt the panzer drive several days into the offensive is treated by the author, despite the obvious threats to the mechanized spearhead’s exposed flanks, as, at best, a major error and, at worst, an act of inexplicable timidity on the part of Germany’s senior generals, particularly Halder, Klüge, and Rundstedt. Lt. Colonel Frieser is also quick to heap scorn on both the OKH and Hitler for the decision to hold the panzers back, and to leave the final liquidation of the survivors of the Allied First Army Group, trapped in and around Dunkirk, to the infantry and the Luftwaffe. This was a catastrophic German error, the author argues, because it transformed what had been a decisive, war-winning victory into a less-impressive, operational success. Certainly, in retrospect, the german failure to prevent the escape of over 330,000 Allied troops seems inexcusable; however, it is also important to remember that prior to “Operation Dynamo”, the evacuation of such a large number of troops from a small coastal enclave like Dunkirk, with little deep water access, had never before even been attempted, much less successfully accomplished. The failure to close the bag around the Allied troops at Dunkirk was certainly a serious lapse, but, given the information available to the German high command at the time, it was, at least, an understandable one. Furthermore, the “miracle of Dunkirk”, I would argue in contrast to Frieser’s view, certainly may have represented a failure of imagination on the part of the commanders of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, but it did not throw away Germany’s only chance for victory in World War II: that, I submit, would not come until more than a year later, in Russia, when a last desperate lunge by the Wehrmacht failed to capture Moscow, in 1941.

Rommel in France
“The Blitzkrieg Legend,” as already noted, is not without its share of flaws. Some of Lt. Colonel Frieser’s strategic conclusions seem either weakly-supported or even, on rare occasions, downright wrong. To be fair, however, most of my criticisms in this area will be of little significance to the typical reader. Also bothersome, at least to me, is the fact that there is more than a smattering of political correctness leaking out from between the lines of some of the author’s prose. This is, while a bit distracting, also understandable: after all, no one in the west — particularly no serving officer in the German Bundeswehr — wants to write anything, ever, that might reflect well on Hitler’s judgment. There is also a hint of the same tiresome historical revisionism that began to crop up just as soon as the defeated German generals (Manstein and Guderian among them) began to publish their post-war memoirs. These efforts at “reputation-mending” tended to take different forms, but ultimately, they somehow always seemed to produce, however obliquely, the same proposition; that is: “if it hadn’t been for Hitler, Germany would have won the war.” Of course, the most obvious response to which, it has always seemed to me, is: “even if such a proposition were actually true (which I doubt), exactly why would the triumph of Nazi barbarism have been a good thing, either for Europe, or even for Germany?”

de Gaulle
Since I am in the mood to pick nits, as a last nit, I will also note that a few of the points that Frieser makes in the course of his writing seem a bit obvious (at least to those of us with an interest in military affairs) or even redundant. Thus, the author’s proposal that the principles that underpinned “blitzkrieg” were neither radical nor even new is hardly either surprising or even unexpected. This is already a well-travelled path, and the view that Frieser espouses has been generally accepted among most students of World War II almost since that conflict ended in 1945. In point of fact, there is really little debate among military history scholars that a large part of the success of the Germans’ 1940 campaign can, as the author argues, be attributed to a serendipitous combination of audacious (mobility-oriented) field commanders, mechanization, infiltration (stosstruppen) tactics, and a German offensive doctrine that, for the first time ever, effectively meshed ground and air operations together in a truly integrated and coherent combat system. When disagreements occasionally do arise about the 1940 campaign, they typically have more to do with the various strategic and operational mistakes committed by the Allies and the effects of those mistakes on the Entente’s disastrous conduct of the war, and not with the causes of the Germans’ success. Nonetheless, the author’s emphasis on the importance of the panzer commanders is, while understandable, still a little troubling.

Certainly, it is easy to acknowledge the important contributions of German officers like Kleist, Guderian, and Rommel when it came to the ultimate success of the German campaign against France; however, it is also important to remember that — unpleasant though it may be for a present-day German like Lt. Colonel Frieser to admit — it was only Hitler’s willingness to gamble on Erich von Manstein’s plan, and not the more conservative approach proposed by the OKH, that ultimately placed Panzergruppe Kleist on the east bank of the Meuse and in a position to achieve the single greatest victory in the long history of German arms, only two days after the start of the offensive. 

JFC Fuller
Finally, we reach the point at which I must offer an overall verdict on this book. And despite my skepticism when it comes to some of the author’s conclusions regarding the larger strategic issues that helped shape the trajectory and final outcome of the Battle for France, I still must give this work an enthusiastic recommendation. “The Blitzkrieg Legend” is probably not for everyone; the depth and detail of the author’s tactical and operational descriptions, for example, may be a little off-putting to the casual reader. But for those individuals with a genuine interest in past military affairs, I really cannot praise it enough. It is true that, at least in my view, “The Blitzkrieg Legend” may have a few warts, but besides being both gracefully and clearly written — the work of the translator is to be commended — it is, when it comes to the operational “nitty-gritty” of the battlefield operations, themselves — an invaluable and superbly-detailed examination of one of the most decisive military campaigns to have taken place during the whole of World War II. Moreover, the author’s own military background, and his already-noted extensive use of both German and French primary sources makes this work — with its excellent collection of forty-eight wonderfully rendered, colored maps — the most comprehensive study of the 1940 campaign for France that I have yet seen. Lt. Colonel Frieser’s book is far from perfect, but viewed in terms of the richness and depth of its analysis of the operational details of the campaign, I really think that it currently has no equal when it comes to its subject matter.

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  • Quite an interesting and stimulating book ! I have read it in french some years ago !

  • Greetings bir-hacheim:

    Nice to hear fromm you, again ...

    Yes, I too found lt. Col. Frieser's analysis of the operational details of Kliest's panzergruppe wonderfully detailed and quite engrossing.

    My only real regret is that the maps published with the book were not larger and offered (as some of the maps in the US Army historical studies) as separate fold-outs. But then, my eyes are not what they used to be, and small details are getting harder for me to see without a magnifying glass.

    Best Regards, Joe

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