The French Army in 1940
On May 10th, 1940, Germany invaded the low countries and France. Overwhelming the Netherlands and sweeping through a weak spot in the French line at Sedan, its fast moving tank divisions arrived at the sea, enclosing French, British, and Belgian troops in a massive pocket which they either evacuated from, losing their heavy equipment, or were forced to surrender in. A second offensive would knock France out of the war, a humiliating defeat which took 6 weeks to achieve.
Despite this, the French army in 1940 was hardly as rotten or as brittle as its performance would have seemed to indicate. One of the world's largest armies, with a proud military tradition, in all probability the most powerful artillery arm in the world, a tank arm larger than that which the Germans deployed, envious supplies of military equipment (with some occasional shortcomings, which predictably often emerged at the worst of times - such as insufficient anti-tank guns in an army otherwise well equipped with them in the reserve infantry divisions which were attacked at Sedan), backed by a formidable air force, equipped with a logical and carefully analyzed doctrine, grounded in powerful fortifications, and fighting a war which it had extensively prepared for for 20 years, the French defeat, which seems so inevitable in retrospect, was shocking at the time. A variety of flaws combined to make the French army fold in a situation which seemed to conspire against them in 1940, in a battle which was otherwise very much in doubt as to the victory. What were these flaws, on the part of an army considered by many the best in the world?
Much ado has been made about the lack of radios for many French tanks, which impinged their tactical efficiency. However, far more important throughout the Battle of France was operational, rather than tactical, communication. French units tended to distrust the usage of radios due to their possibility of being intercepted by enemy intelligence. As a result, they wanted to utilize methods which could be more secure : telephones, and couriers. Both of these carried drawbacks. Telephone wires naturally were static tools, requiring an entrenched defensive position. Furthermore, they could be cut, since they were laid along the open ground, vulnerable to artillery, aerial bombardment, and enemy advance. Once telephone wires were cut, the forward units were dangerously lacking in their ability to communicate to, and receive orders from, their higher echelons, as well as to coordinate with other units nearby. Couriers meanwhile, had even greater drawbacks. A courier naturally took a long time to arrive at a destination, and there was the possibility that they might be killed, injured, or otherwise prevented from delivering their message. He who sent the message would labor under the illusion that it had arrived and would be acted upon, and the recipient would never know that it had been sent in the first place. Reports were supposed to be submitted to commanders for approval : for example, if a unit, such as a battalion, wanted artillery support, it went first to the regiment, and then to the artillery, and if it potentially affected another regiment, then it had to go through divisional headquarters, adding in at least one and possibly two other stages in communication that meant that while technically French artillery was capable of quickly laying down fire, its actual capability to achieve this was significantly reduced.
The result of this was that the French army took an extremely long time to react to events. First messages would have to be relayed to higher officers, then they would have to formulate a response - which often took an exceedingly long time, as they were used to the low tempo of operations present in peace time or WW1 conditions, and then a response issued and relayed to the unit which had originally sent the message. When it arrived back at the front, these orders were often in response to a situation which had already passed. The French Army as a result was always being caught flat footed, and never able to regain its equilibrium. Its low speed of response was sufficient for a WW1 time operation, when days or weeks captured the response time for an operation, but in WW2, when hours counted, it was insufficient.
A myth exists that French doctrine in 1940 was essentially that of WW1, and that the French had learned nothing and simply intended to fight the last war. France had been deeply scarred and impacted by WW1, more so than any other major combatant, and twenty years later it planned to fight a defensive, attritional warfare, concentrating on utilizing its superiority in heavy artillery and fighting a slow, methodical, grinding war, to achieve victory over Germany. This seems like it lends credence to the view that the French army had changed little in the past twenty years, but appearances were deceiving.
Immediately following the end of the Second World War, and until 1920, French doctrine was not based on a passive, defensive war against Germany, but instead upon an offensive conducted into the North German plain, hopefully in conjunction with a Polish attack from the East. In 1929, France began instead to build the Maginot line, planning a defensive policy predicated on a long term war against Germany. this was long before any serious re-armament could be carried out on the German side, so what changed?
In 1928, France moved from a 1 1/2 year conscription term, to a 1 year term. In France, a long debate had existed over conscription and conscription length, with the French political right wanting a volunteer professional army to ensure domestic stability, while the French political left wanted a conscript army that would make the army more of a militia, closer to the people, and unable to be isolated from society and used against it. Thus, the French left favored shorter conscription terms. French military commanders were convinced that while 1 1/2 and 2 year conscripts could be useful offensively, 1 year conscripts would require significant additional training before being able to launch offensive operations, and that with training times of 1 year they would be mostly only useful defensively. This was not a universal mindset, as other armies, somewhat famously the German one which used reservists in its offensive in 1914, much to the French military's surprise, had a different opinion on the value of short term conscripts, but this was the opinion held by French military leadership. Thus, the French army adopted an operational mindset that implied defensive operations, fighting a slow, grueling war with the Germans where its army could increase in its fighting proficiency and training over time.
French doctrine thus stressed a slow, methodical battlefield, dominated by artillery, and where the defense was paramount. Some of these seeds had emerged before the change over in 1929 to a defensive operational philosophy, but while regulations before this date emphasized that extensive preparation and caution should be used in undertaking an offensive, they still allowed the offensive a vital role as part of general French strategy. Infantry was supreme in this battle, and everything on the battlefield revolved around supporting it, as it was the only arm which could take and hold ground. Firepower meanwhile, was king : le feu tue : firepower kills, was the byword of the French military. It took precedence over everything else, meaning that while the French military had tremendous amounts of firepower, it lacked other capabilities - by contrast, the opposing German military stressed mobility as well.
Methodical battle emphasized above all else usage of artillery and tight central control. The French had vast stocks and reserves of WW1 artillery, with an especially formidable heavy artillery arsenal. These would be tightly controlled by a commander, who would utilize them to deploy firepower to vital spots on the firepower against the enemy or in support of his forces. Linked together by networks of telephone cables, they would be able to securely communicate, and French artillery was technologically advanced, carefully preparing positions that it had occupied so that within a few days it would be able to call down extremely accurate fire with rapid response times, compared to British artillery which was inaccurate and German artillery which took a long time to respond. Information would be passed from lower units to higher echelons, who would make a decision knowing the totality of the information that was happening on the battlefield, and then relay that accordingly, enabling them to control the battlefield effectively as it progressed.
On the defense, French troops would hold a solid front line, supported by their artillery and well dug in against an enemy offensive, making breaking the lines extremely difficult. If the line was broken, then instead of holding to defense in depth with another line which would have to be broken through, the French would move up reserves to plug the gap, with divisions on the side and from the rear attacking and restoring the line. In the offense, French forces would attack with heavy artillery support and with powerful tank support, defeat enemy forces that were under their artillery umbrella, and then consolidate, digging in and defeating enemy attempts at a counter-attack. Artillery would then be brought up to the new positions, and the cycle would repeat again, as French forces methodically advanced utilizing their advantages in artillery and material. The bloodletting of insufficiently planned and supported offensives present in WW1 would be avoided, and insufficiently trained low level officers would execute orders from high command instead of attempting to carry out complex operations on their own initiative.
It all made perfect sense, and the French had planned, examined, and analyzed it for two decades. If it made heavy usage of lessons learned in the First World War (French historical analysis concentrated almost exclusively on the lessons of the Western Front during WW1), it also was the result of reactions to post-war political realities, and careful military thought : it was hardly simply an attempt to refight the last war. Unfortunately, it proved to be ineffective when the long awaited battle arrived. Methodical battle, combined with the lack of emphasis paid to communication in the French army, meant that the French army was unable to respond to a rapidly moving battlefield environment, as officers waited on orders to arrive from a high command which was, instead of being an all-seeing eye capable of wisely placing assets on the battlefield, increasingly out of touch with the actual state of affairs on the ground. When the fateful breach at Sedan did happen, French units moved to plug the gap, and were either defeated - such as the French corps which attacked at Sedan - or were overrun before they could move into position, as occurred when the French strategic reserve sent units in. In the mobile battlefield that the Germans occasioned after breaking through at Sedan, the French army was unable to cope, and French infantry divisions were unable to meet German tank divisions in open combat. German tank units simple bypassed or defeated scattered French resistance and ran to the channel, while the French were off balance and unable to react in this war of motion. Methodical battle proved incapable of meeting a rapidly moving war.
This focus upon a slow moving battle with constant front lines also meant that strengths that the French army possessed went to waste. For example, the French army, which was substantially more motorized than its German equivalents, principally saw its motorized infantry divisions not in terms of their tactical and operational mobility, but rather in regards to their strategic capability, to move as quickly as possible into Belgium to pre-empt a German attack there. Once arrived, they would dismount and fight largely like any other infantry division.
Training and Formation
Training for troops is one of their most vital and important indicators of combat effectiveness, which affects most everything else : a well trained army can pull off victories against armies which are superior in numbers and equipment. But training furthermore also impacts the very doctrine and war that an army plans to fight. The French army in WW2 consciously accepted that their levels of training would be low for their troops initially, and structured their war effort around it, as already mentioned, aiming for a long war where they could train their troops and improve their standards throughout the war, However, in the high tempo operations in 1940, this proved impossible.
France had been a country based on a universal conscription military from the Franco-Prussian war onwards. However, the amount of the population conscripted varied over time, reaching 85% by the time of WW1, essentially the entire male population, and also varied in length. Before WW1 a long struggle secured its raise to 3 years from 2, and following the war, with reduced threat from Germany, the French first reduced service to 18 month in 1923, and then to 1 year in 1928. In 1935, the Germans instituted conscription, and as a result the French returned to a 2 year law, but the result was that the French in 1940 only had half the number of 2-year trained conscripts that the Germans did, since the French conscript pool was only half as large, the French population being smaller and older, and with a lower proportion of children being born in WW1 and coming into service some two decades later. These classes creuses reduced the French conscript intake dramatically, and fell precisely in the critical period of build up to WW1 - 1936-1940. Instead France had many 1 year conscripts, but these had only served half as long, which made them less effective, particularly for mobile operations. The Germans had been able to spend much more on training throughout the 1930s, based on an economy that was fully devoted to war buildup, while the French were forced to make budgetary economies.
If as mentioned, the French planned to train their troops when the war broke out, then it would seem the eight months of the phony war, the drôle de guerre, would have been sufficient. Some training did occur, but many units were assigned to construction instead of to training, such as the units at Sedan. This construction of fortifications in many cases on the front disorganized and further reduced the combat power of the units involved, and in many cases the fortifications that the troops had constructed were promptly abandoned when they moved forwards into Belgium along the Dyle plan.
Never the less, training did proceed. French NCOs went through refresher courses and training cycles throughout the army. Unfortunately, this process was not complete by May 10th, when the German army advanced.
While not directly related to 1940, when the system produced exactly what the French wanted - an army that was extremely large for France's population and capable of fighting an attritional warfare with a relatively low tempo of operations - the system of mobilization and army formation used by the French also was limiting. The French army was not quite a professional volunteer army as we envision one today, but instead functioned as a vast system to train conscripts and hence produce reservists, and to guard the frontiers against a surprise attack. The actual war would be fought when the entire nation mobilized, the nation en armes. Thus, the French army was designed to mobilize into a quite massive force in war time by calling up reservists. Every French active division would convert into 2 divisions, and then each of these would convert into 2 again, producing 4 divisions, with the manpower from the original division functioning as cadre for the newly created divisions. This had the advantage of producing a very large mobilized army of moderate training, but it also took some time to complete, meant that any division sent into combat before it completed its combat division would reduce the number of divisions that might be able to be sent in later on, and meant that even theoretically permanent infantry divisions in the war would be of low quality, with a small number of long-standing cadre. Charles de Gaulle famously suggested to build a corp of some 100,000 men who would be long-service volunteers and could function as a rapid response force in armored and mechanized formations, but this was rejected for various reasons, politically because it ran the risk of a coup by having such a force existing, and militarily because it would be extremely expensive and draw down the rest of the army's capacity. This meant that the French had their hands tied behind their back in any crisis, as they either had the option of not doing anything, or mobilizing completely in a process that would take weeks, in order to put their army in the field.
Weapons and Artillery Equipment
While the notion of the French being ill-equipped is a myth, there were certain limitations that the French army had in regards to its weaponry compared to its German opposition. Mostly this relates to inadequate numbers, although there were also cases where French weapons were outdated due to being maintained from the Great War (although they were still hardly obsolescent).
French infantry were equipped with less effective heavy machine guns, composed of the medium Hotchkiss mle. 1914, an effective machine gun which did not come light. Meanwhile, every squad had a light machine gun in the form of the FM24/29. This, which was similar to an American BAR, is viewed as a very good weapon, substantially improving on the American weapon. But in the end of the day it was a light machine gun, and not equipped with a quick change barrel nor an ammunition belt instead of its magazines. Both of this restricted its weight of fire. Compared to this, German MG 34 machine guns could sustain higher sustained rates of fire, due to its capability to take ammunition belts and the capacity to change its barrel. Meanwhile, it was lighter than the Hotchkiss machine gun when deployed in a heavy machine gun role with a tripod. A French battalion might thus have only around 2/3rds of the German equivalent's machine gun firepower, despite having 52 machine guns to its German counterpart's 41.
French mortars were highly effective, with the 60mm mortar later serving as a base for the American mortar of the same type during and after the war, and the French 81mm mortar has largely served as the base for all mortars since. But the French had fewer mortars than the Germans : 3 60mm mortars and 2 81mm mortars per battalion, to the German's 9 50mm mortars and 6 81mm mortars. In effect, a German infantry battalion had significantly more in the way of firepower that it could lay down, which greatly aided the Germans in attacking French positions. While French troops had rifle grenades, which their German enemies did not, this only went part of the way towards resolving the gap.
By far the biggest problem with the French capacity to lay down fire upon their enemy was the continued reliance on the French 75mm gun. France had huge stockpiles of these field guns left over from WW1, and the exorbitant cost of replacing this artillery park meant they continued in service. By contrast, the German army, which had in effect lost all of its artillery after the Great War, had replaced its light divisional artillery with 105mm howitzers, capable of greater versatility with their higher arc, and substantially greater throw weight. With the same number of guns, 36, a German division would be able to fire far more in the weight of metal and even more proportionately of high explosive, from better secured positions, to better effect against enemies in cover. French guns wouldn't be as bad as the numbers entail in engaging troops in the open due to shrapnel effects, which the 75mm would have more of proportionately, but there can be no doubt that the light artillery of a German division would be substantially better than its French equivalent. The French made up for this with twice the amount of heavy artillery - 24 155mm guns compared to 12 150mm guns of the Germans - but it was still an area where the Germans had a critical advantage over the French.
In contrast the French had a decisive advantage in heavy artillery, but this would be truly useful only if the tempo of battle slowed down enough so as to enable their deployment. Historically, this never occurred, and the fighting was done principally by divisional artillery. French artillery performed well throughout the battle, but it wasn't able to bring the full weight of its firepower to bear.
Technically, air defense might not be something applicable to the French army, but it was of such critical importance to the campaign that it surely requires some mention. To an extent, the French army was a victim of events beyond its own purvey, in its relationships with the air force, but it also made these problems worse and played a critical role in undermining France's capability to fight an air war.
The French Air Force became an independent arm in 1932, due to various political maneuverings. Throughout the 1930s it had a bitter rivalry with the other branches, and there was a potent schism within its ranks over the advantages of strategic bombing compared to tactical bombing. By the late 1930s, the French Air Force had even gained a majority of the funding allocated to the armed forces, in a desperate effort to catch up to the Luftwaffe, which had expanded rapidly and outpaced the French Air Force. This would ultimately come too late, and the French Air Force's production, finally starting to achieve sufficient production in 1940, combined with insufficient pilots and a host of problems to mean that the French air force was poorly placed to confront control of the skies.
Part of the blame for this comes from the army. When the war broke out, the army placed the demand upon the air force to have its units directly supported by air force aircraft. Thus, every French army had aviation assets assigned directly to support and defend it, instead of being placed directly under the air force's command. When the attack came at Sedan, with such an overwhelming amount of the German air force dedicated against it, the result was that only a fraction of the French air force could be directed to defend French units there. The army's efforts to ensure that every section of the line was covered came to nought : instead it ensured that it's air cover was defeated in detail. So too, communication with the air force was limited and problematic. It took 5 hours between a request for air support being tendered and bombers arriving on the site: for the Germans, it took minutes. The eternal problems of insufficient communication displayed themselves.
If the French army was generally equipped sufficiently in regards to its material, in anti-aircraft weaponry, its deficiency was crippling. Each French infantry division was supposed to be equipped with 6 25mm anti-aircraft guns, and shortages often prevailed. French battalions had a machine gun platoon specialized in anti-aircraft fire, but 4 machine guns per battalion to shoot against aircraft was hardly a great bonus. The average German division facing them would have twice the number of light anti-aircraft guns. 20mm Oerlikons existed as well, and each infantry regiment was supposed to have 12, but deliveries were entirely insufficient for this : as a result only some French infantry divisions had 20mm cannons, and of these only a portion had anywhere near the full complement of 12 guns, more often with 1-6. The 55th and 77th divisions at Sedan had none. For an army which had known for years that it would face an enemy with a more powerful aerial arm, this lack of a powerful anti-aircraft arm is bizarre. More numerous anti-aircraft guns would not have altered the fate of the fall of France, but the glaring oversight of knowing about the insufficiencies of the air force against enemies, and failing to rectify this by more anti-aircraft guns, is an indictment against the French army. Its only area where it had an effective number of guns was in medium anti-aircraft guns of 75mm, but these were hopelessly inadequate for defending its troops in the field against German ground assault aircraft. Several dozen entrenched and camouflaged autocannons for its divisions at Sedan could have inflicted much more losses on the German aircraft attacking than the paltry numbers they sustained, and reduced their effectiveness.
The total number of French anti-aircraft guns can be expressed in the following table, according to Stéhane Ferrad.
Available April 30th 1940
Mobilized on May 10th 1940
Delivered in May/June 1940
(Unknown, combined with 25mm there are 327 25mms)
(Unknown, combined with 25mm there are 327 25mms
421 (with 12 multiple mount self propelled AA guns)
If there is one section of the Battle of France where the French are unfairly critiqued, other than the idea of cowardly behavior present in anti-French popular stereotypes, it is in regards to their tanks. German tank forces were instrumental in their victory in the campaign, and French tanks lacked the same success, and emerged as an easy victim to blame for the catastrophe. This has changed over time: at first the claim was that the Germans had far more tanks, and better tanks, against an unmechanized French army, but would later include the ideas that the French tanks lacked radios and hence couldn't coordinate against German tanks, and that the French split their tanks out into small formations that they couldn't marshal against their German enemies. The two latter myths continue to proliferate, although the first has been much more vigorously fought : indeed, the shoe is on the other foot now, with the claim that French tanks were better and more numerous than the German tanks (the second is true, the first is debatable, but in any case both sides brought combat capable vehicles to the battlefield).
Like any good myth, the idea of French tanks lacking radios and being distributed out excessively into small packets holds a seed of truth. French light tanks did lack radios for the most part, and were typically grouped into autonomous tank battalions. This does not capture the entire truth though. Most French medium and heavy tanks had radios, and some light tanks had radios as well. French medium and heavy tanks even had dedicated radio operators, whatever their other problems were. While the majority (some 80%) of French tanks did not have radios, these were the small light tanks which can be better thought of as mobile infantry support vehicles rather than tanks. The Germans had large numbers of even worse light tanks as well, such as their Panzer I (which was incapable of even penetrating the armor on French tanks with only a machine gun), and Panzer IIs, so France was hardly unique in fielding inadequate light tanks.
This too, leads into the second point : the unfair criticism of France excessively dissipating its armored units. Most of the time this argument appears in that France grouped its tanks into penny packets to support the infantry. Again, this does hold true to an extent, as the French formed many battalions of tanks which were assigned to army corps to support infantry units. However, the units equipped for these battalions were not the French medium and heavy tanks as a rule, but instead French light infantry tanks : vehicle best not thought of as tanks in the traditional sense. In addition to the infantry tanks, the French had 3 DCRs and 3 DLMs (the infantry and cavalry armored divisions respectively), both consisting of large numbers of tanks and powerfully equipped, although the DCRs were excessively tank heavy. These units were capable of providing the French with their concentrated armor units capable of meeting and defeating their opposing German armored divisions.
But still, the French army made mistakes and errors in their tanks, even if they were hardly as grievous as often assumed. The excessive focus on the excessively expensive and complicated heavy tanks of the Char B1, and the many small light infantry tanks without significant combat power, reduced its potential to field a strong solid core of medium tanks which could have provided for building up more armored divisions, which might have halted a german attack with their superior speed and combat capacity. An army based around a capable medium tank like the Somua S35, and a cheaper version of the Char B1 which could have fulfilled the role of a self propelled gun to support the infantry would have been one better served by its tank force. This raises one of the problems that the French army had in regards to procuring equipment : there was no centralized office, but instead infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers, all had their own technical organizations to design their necessary equipment. Naturally, some degree of specialization was needed, but the utility of having tanks so similar as the H35 and R35 both existing and in production, hence denying economy of scale, is questionable.
Still, in this regard, ironically given that it is where the French army receives so much scorn, their performance was relatively good, as can be seen by the battles at Hannut in 1940.
The Maginot Line
No discussion about the Battle of France is complete without a comment about the Maginot line, so famous, and so controversial, a fortification line along the Franco-German border which has been turned into almost a byword for a failed strategy obsolete for its time. As with tanks, the Maginot Line is conversely something which is cited far too often as a failure of the French army and planning. While it caused certain shortcomings, it fit into a logical French doctrine, and was probably worth more than it cost.
To start with, one of the popular illusions about the Maginot line must be dispelled: that the Maginot line was brilliantly outflanked by the Germans, a move that the French never expected, being too stupid to realize that the Maginot line did not run to the sea. Instead of this being unexpected, it was conversely the intention of the Maginot line: to force the Germans to invade through Belgium, instead of through France, to narrow down the zones which the French army might have to fight on. Rather than the Germans attacking through Belgium being an example of the failure of the Maginot line, it was conversely an example of its success, as it fulfilled the intent, to make the Germans advance through Belgium, rather than attacking France directly. The defeat of French forces in Belgium (and Belgian fortifications, which an integral part of the defense system and were supposed to slow down the German attack, but ultimately fell almost immediately to German paratroopers and assault) was where failure lay, not with the Maginot line. The gros ouvrages - the big forts - of the Maginot line never fell, although a number of petit ouvrages did, and the line was pierced along the Rhine when the covering divisions were withdrawn. Covering divisions were forces supposed to hold the gaps between the forts, and were an integral part of the Maginot line's defense. With them, the Maginot line was almost impregnable, but without, a determined attack could pierce it, as in the Rhine offensive.
France derived other benefits from the Maginot line other than just channeling the Germans north. It was able to reduce the number of divisions that it garrisoned the Franco-German border with, to ensure that it would be impossible for a surprise attack to invade France before the French armies were ready at the beginning of the war, and the fortifications provided for a potential springboard for an offensive into Germany if France had not fallen in 1940. The Maginot line cost money, but its percentage of the French budget was relatively small, substantially under 5%, around 2%. This was a budgetary cost which the French army could well afford: the total cost of the Maginot line was around 5 to 6 billion francs, while the French parliament voted 14 billion francs in 1936 alone for army modernization. Furthermore, this construction happened principally in the early 1930s, when if it had been spent on other projects such as tanks or aircraft, they would long since have been obsolete - something which French generals were painfully aware of, and which plagued the air force which had rushed to build up military forces in the expectation of a war in 1936, only to find much of its forces obsolete in 1940 or re-equipping with new units. That is, if funding had been provided in any case: fortifications were popular in the pacifist and pro-disarmament environment of the early 1930s, and "offensive" weapons were not, so it was not necessarily a choice between the Maginot line and a larger army, but between Maginot line and no military spending at all. In exchange for these investments, when the 1940 offensive came, they could station substantially fewer divisions along the Franco-German border. The number they stationed was still probably excessive compared to their actual needs, but it was less than they would have stationed otherwise.
Nevertheless, the Maginot line did have its flaws. Fewer troops as mentioned, could have been committed : additional troops at Sedan could have done much to assist them, and a stronger central reserve might even have saved the day. The lack of an extension of the Maginot Line to Sedan, just outside of the terminus of the Maginot Line, left a vulnerable chink in France's armor which could have been closed for little additional cost, while still forcing the Germans to go north, as compared to plans to fortify all the way to the Belgian border (impossible due to the low water table which makes construction difficult and much more costly, and undesirable as it would remove the certainty of where a German attack might come from). Perhaps most importantly was something not directly related to the Maginot overall : the feeling of security which came from the line, which made the French army more defensive and more secure than it should have been. This however, is not the fault of the Maginot line itself. The Maginot line succeeded in its objectives, and if it had its flaws, it receives far too much criticism for what was a logical project which fit into French military doctrine of the era.
In general, it is better to assume that the enemy is stronger than they actually are, and to respond accordingly, than to assume they are too weak, and find oneself wanting. The former means a victory with excessive force applied, the second defeat and catastrophe. There are however, circumstances where this is not always true.
The Battle of France was one of them. French military intelligence, the "Deuxième bureau", had consistently over-estimated German military strength for years. When German remilitarized the Rhineland, it estimated the number of German troops present at 295,000 : the actual number was 3,000. Drastic over-estimates were made during the Sudeten crisis, and in September 1939. By the time of the Battle of France, French estimates of German troops continued to be much larger than in reality. Instead of 157 divisions which the Germans possessed in May 1940 being recognized by the French, they estimated German numbers at 205 by April, and with even more potential to mobilize more forces.
Tank forces used by the Germans were overestimated to at least 5,000 to 7,000 tanks, and even up to 10,000 - including thousands of heavy tanks (at a time when Germany had in actuality only a few hundred Panzer IV). In reality, the numbers of German tanks deployed was somewhat more than 2,000, so that instead of German armored forces being a massive wave which overwhelmed the French, they were actually outnumbered. A similar over-estimate existed in the air, where the French assumed they were out-numbered 8 to 1 : while the German air force actually was superior in this case, the Deuxième Bureau greatly overestimated the margin of superiority in both its front-line strength and production (this applied to French estimates for Italy as well).
The reasons behind such bad intelligence are numerous. Sometimes they stemmed from applying French logic to the Germans, such as in tanks where the French at times correctly understood the number of armored divisions held by the Germans - 9 - but then married this to the belief that the Germans had large numbers of tanks spread out in battalions in the rest of the army, like the French. During the Rhineland crisis, they had assumed that German paramilitary and labor forces were all regular soldiers. There was also a political aspect, as constant over-estimations of German forces convinced civilian leaders of the need for more military funding and build up. Finally, there was an element of face-saving : if the battle turned out badly, French military leadership, particularly the French high commander Maurice Gamelin, would be able to exonerate themselves by pointing to vastly superior German military strength.
This faulty intelligence would result in bad French deployment of their troops, which comes to light above all else in the penultimate problem of the French army in this battle : the Dyle-Breda plan.
Even with all of these mentioned problems, a French defeat in 1940 was not inevitable. The Allies were bound to be surprised by the nature of a German enemy that was stronger and more capable than they had anticipated, and that their own doctrines had to be reworked and rebuilt. But the French army was not as rotten as it was portrayed after the fact, and the German victory in 1940 was a close run affair that could have easily gone the other way. What would doom France in 1940 would be the ill advised Dyle-Breda plan.
Initial French planning had intended for the French and British armies, when the Germans inevitable invaded Belgium, to only advance a short distance into the country, to the Eschaut river. The Eschaut plan had its drawbacks - it did not protect the Central Belgian plains with its important industrial power - but it had a great advantage : it did not require French and British armies to rush forwards at such great speed into Belgium, in an operation which could have only been performed by mechanized units.
These mechanized units were the elite of the French army, and also represented the BEF. They were needed to advance to delay German advance and to reach vital defensive positions, such as the Gembloux gap, and to hold them against German attack. It also meant that the 7e armée would be utilized to rush forwards to help the Dutch to hold the Water Line against German attacks into Holland : ironically, the principal result from this was that it resulted in the Dutch making defensive adjustments, such as planning to not destroy certain bridges, which spelled the collapse of the Netherlands. By taking these mobile units out of French reserves, it made the French strategic reserve much weaker. Previously, units in the French 7e armée had been positioned in the French center, where they had been capable of responding to a German attack there (which is in the end, what happened). Instead, now they moved north into the Netherlands, and failed to have any meaningful cooperation with the Dutch in this, since the Dutch armies retreated north, rather than south, moving themselves away from the French units coming to assist - and these French units moved themselves further and further away from the principal combat region. When a puncture did emerge in the line, at Sedan, there were insufficient combat capable reserves capable of responding. The French were aware of this risk, but they believed that if any German breakthrough did happen, strategic reserves would find it difficult to stop it given the previously belief in German preponderance in armored forces and exaggeration of air force sizes. As a result, a desperate dash into Belgium to take up defensive lines was perceived as the only option to provide for defensive positions with which to meet an army perceived as much stronger than it actually was. The very French effort to attempt to deal with perceived numerical inferiority, gave then numerical inferiority where it counted.
If French and British troops had been invited into Belgium earlier, such as when the Belgians captured German plans detailing a German invasion of Belgium, then in fortified forwards positions along the Belgian's own fortification systems, they would have spelled the doom of any German attack into the Netherlands, and meant that the mobile units could have been kept in reserve. Instead, the Belgians, by refusing to let French and British troops into their country to protect themselves, even if they did keep liaison contacts with the French, meant that the British and the French, by attempting to defend Belgium when the German invasion actually came, were unable to actually defeat the Germans. The decision to try to save Central Belgium is what cost France the battle, and if the Belgians were unwilling to let the French in to defend them, then France should not have applied such effort to save both them and the Dutch.
French military planners had planned for a long war, fought in a methodical battle of attrition, which made the best use of French strengths and minimized their weaknesses. The war they would get would be one which would be very different, and which saw ill-prepared French units plunged into a desperate mêlée which German units punched through quickly, trapping and destroying the pride of the French army in the vast Dunkirk pocket.
But the Battle of France did not end here. As German units advanced south, they met tougher opposition, re-invigorated and more resilient. French troops defended against German tanks with hedge hog defenses, forming mutually supporting strong points which German tanks suffered cruelly against. German infantry fought bloody battles in the advance, and the Luftwaffe had its work cut out to support German forces. French operations improved and they reacted to the challenges they had faced, so that throughout the campaign, German casualties continually mounted. Just as French generals had planned, French troops became more seasoned by war, training up "on the job" to so say, and French effectiveness continually increased until morale shattered when Pétain announced negotiations for the armistice. It was the tragedy of the French that the initial round of the war for them happened to be one which exploited all of their weaknesses and few of their strengths, and which inflicted a blow on them from which they could never recover. All of the major powers of the Second World War on the Allied side suffered from such initial disasters, from the British defeat in France, to their loss in Norway, to the humiliating fall of Singapore, the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa, and the United States and the near-destruction of its battle fleet at the opening of the war and its horrific casualties suffered to its merchant marine in the opening days of its involvement in the conflict. But the British had the channel, the Americans the Atlantic, and the Soviets thousands of kilometers of land to retreat through. All of them could recover : France could not. The Fall of France in 1940 has given rise to a false impression of France as cowardly and defeatist, when history could have have had a very different result.
For those interested in speculation about what weapons might have been adopted by the French if France had not fallen in 1940, see the link below.
- And If France Had Not Fallen? Weapons of the French Army and Air Force After 1940
A myth has emerged that the French were unprepared technologically for the 1940 campaign : they seem to have been determined to shatter that with a dazzling variety of advanced weapons planned.
A Clash of Military Cultures; German & French Approaches to Technology Between the Wars, by James S. Corum
Culture and Military Doctrine: France Between the Wars, by Elizabeth Kier
Strategy and Scapegoatism: Reflections on the French National Catastrophe, 1940, by Nicole Jordan
The Maginot Line: A Basic Primer, by J.E. Kaufmann
The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939
L'Action de l'Armée de l'Air en 1939-1950: Facteurs Structurels et Conjoncturels d'Une Défaire, by Philippe Garraud
“Où est la Masse de Manoeuvre?”: Maurice Gamelin and the Lessons of Blitzkrieg in Poland, by Robert Parker
1939-1940 French Armament, by David Lehmann
Repercussions of the Breda Variant, by Don W. Alexander
French Foreign and Defense Policy 1918-1940: The Decline and Fall of a Great Power, a collection of essays edited by Robert Boyce.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Ryan Thomas