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.
Lt. 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.
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.
|Evolution of Fall Gelb Plan|
|Rommel in France|
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.