Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In defence of France

Defeated by the Nazis, but not disgraced

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SEVENTY years ago this May and June, northern France was over-run by a combined air and land assault the Germans called blitzkrieg. Two things are known with certainty by those who can remember and those who have learned — even if imperfectly. As one earnest undergraduate put it: "The Germans took the bypass around France’s Marginal Line" as part of their strategy of "Blintz Krieg." Well, the idea is there.

The first certainty is the armed forces of the Third French Republic were defeated in six weeks. The second is the defeat led to the immediate collapse of the Republic and the advent of Marshal Philippe Pétain's Vichy government, a short-lived (1940-1944) but murderous regime that collaborated with the Nazis and deported thousands of Jews for slaughter. Neither the suddenness of the defeat nor its consequences are in doubt.


But because the collapse was so sudden and unexpected, and the consequences so vile, a body of dubious "knowledge" has arisen and endured. It is that which has so coloured popular impressions of pre-war, war-time, even contemporary France. Simply recall the famous and worn jests: "How many Frenchmen does it take to guard Paris? Nobody knows, it's never been tried;" or "Raise your right hand if you like the French. Raise both hands if you are French;" or What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their hands up? The Army." Many readers will be familiar with the post-1940 exploits of courageous partisan units defying the German Occupation and operating under the generic expression of the French Resistance. But most will not recall the Free Press articles of 10 May and 15 June 1940, articles which attributed to the fighting "a ferocity which defies imagination," and which described allied resistance as worthy of "inexpressible admiration." Few now know that there were some 100,000 French soldiers and airmen who did not surrender. They died. Fewer still will know that almost 50,000 German soldiers and airmen also died under fire. So much for the popular notion that the French army folded like a warm croissant.

Why, then, has ignorance bred faith? Partly because neither of the post-1945 Republics, the Fourth and the Fifth, could see any advantage in rehabilitating a predecessor linked directly to military defeat and indirectly to collaboration with the Nazis. Best leave their predecessor in ignominy. Partly because the post-war scramble among former decision-makers of the Third, both civilian and military, to blame someone, anyone, else for the disaster, ensured that the stain would be widespread. Partly because it seemed obvious that a great defeat had to have great causes, ones that surpassed the battlefield and implicated the entire nation. It is this third that explains why so many observers were quick, if only after the fact, to pick up the scent of moral rot: a society which, since the 1920s, had surrendered to the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence long before it would surrender to the Germans.

This, to be sure, is caricature, its sharp profile in need of sanding down with fact. That student was right to say the heavy fortifications of the Maginot Line were outflanked, not broken, despite the best efforts of Luftwaffe bombers whose post-victory crews were mortified to see the ineffectiveness of their ordinance. Those crews had sustained heavy casualties at the hands of allied - principally French - fighter planes and anti-aircraft artillery: more than 500 German bombers destroyed by 25 June, or 30 per cent of the machines operational on 10 May when the offensive in the west began. Their comrades on the ground were equally tested, particularly between late May and the armistice of 22 June when French resistance on the Somme, Aisne, Moselle, Seine and Loire intensified. To be sure, the killing was not equal, the French with 123,000 dead, the Germans with only 49,000 - including among the latter those who died under the 450 allied bombing sorties launched in that single week between 28 May and 4 June. Nor was the wounding equal, the French with 250,000, the Germans with only 111,000. What are the chances that a combined casualty rate of over half a million men in six weeks, more than 10,000 per day, might finally lift the fog that still lingers over the French surrender?

But if the resistance was more intense than is often supposed, with what did they fight? The Maginot Line, it is commonly believed, was a white elephant, tribute to a static notion of warfare that was demolished by a war of movement. The French, many still believe, had no tanks, no aircraft, few if any modern weapons. But the Line, built in part to economize on defenders' lives after the terrible bloodbath of the First World War, was designed from the start to serve as a hinge for a mobile plunge further north, across the border and deep into Belgium to confront a German offensive from that direction. Though French planners seriously over-rated the natural defensive potential of the Ardennes Forest - where the German breakthrough of 12-15 May actually occurred - the Line was inspired by the natural desire to avert another war on French soil by employing mobile forces, rather than rejecting them. Indeed, it was only two days after the motorized infantry and artillery of General Giraud's 7th army had begun its rapid advance north-eastward into Belgium to confront the offensive prong represented by the 30 divisions of General von Bock's Army Group B, that the 44 divisions of the second German prong under General von Rundstedt - including 7 armoured divisions - were unleashed south-westerly through the Ardennes.

Though French planners had once been behind the curve when it came to envisaging light and heavy armoured units acting independently of the infantry, they had made extraordinary gains in production and assembly in 1939-40. They had even achieved a slight numerical superiority over the Germans by the outset of the campaign, and had begun to produce models more heavily armoured and armed -- though slower and harder on fuel -- than most of the machines in the vaunted Panzer divisions. While the celebrated Panzer III tank was 20 tons by weight, including 30 mm armour and a 37mm cannon, the Somua S35 had 56 mm of protective armour and a 47mm cannon, and the Char B was a 32-ton leviathan with 60 mm of armour and a 75mm cannon.

Even in the air, the French record was far from abysmal. Against a significantly superior Luftwaffe that outnumbered them two to one, French fighters flew more than 300 sorties a day in the first week of June alone, and inflicted a 30 per cent rate of destruction against the Ju-87 dive-bombers and the Messerschmitt fighters. So despite Germany's unequivocal victory, the skies were not empty, casualties on land and in the air were heavy, and almost all of the laying down of arms came after, not before, the armistice.

Any review of the military events of 1940 inevitably leads to some appraisal of the pre-war condition. If resistance were actually intense, in will and in weapon, what might this suggest about a people said to have been so gutted by the experience of the First World War that all they wanted to do was enrich and amuse themselves? How does it square with contemporary reports that, contrary to the musing of latter-day prophets, they went to war in September 1939 with confidence and determination? The American ambassador reckoned the nation's "self control and quiet courage" to be "far beyond the usual standard of the human race." Foreign journalists were struck by the fact that there were almost no incidents of reservists failing to report for duty. Janet Flanner judged the nation's morale "excellent" for being "intelligent, not emotional." If there was no enthusiasm for war, neither was there panic, nor presentiment of disaster - which is why, when it came, one instant autopsy followed another in desperate bids to discover, after the fact, what had been missed before.

Had French intelligence overlooked the buildup of German arms under Hitler, or misunderstood how they would be used? No, it had monitored German rearmament since the 1920s, and was clear on the principles of what later came to be called blitzkrieg. Had it misunderstood Hitler's intentions, or allowed successive French administrations to become complacent about the nation's security? No again. The warnings were legion and accelerating since 1936.

Had those administrations failed in their post-Depression responsibilities by refusing to invest in the most modern instruments of war or in the industrial infrastructure needed to produce them? Again, the answer is no. Between January 1937 and September 1939, the French tank force had leaped from 162 machines to more than 2,200. The numbers of 25-mm anti-tank guns had risen from 1,800 to more than 2,600, while the arsenal of 75-mm anti-aircraft guns had tripled to nearly 400. In September 1938 with a monthly production of only 39 modern planes, the air command said war would mean its annihilation within a fortnight. By September 1939 monthly production was 285. By May 1940, French production of modern combat aircraft had surpassed 600, only a whisker away from German production; and it is in those production figures that one finds an explanation for why the French air force actually doubled in size between the onset of war and the armistice - this despite the loss of 2,000 planes during the six-week campaign.

Was there then something inherently flawed in the character of the country's leaders, or something missing in their inner constitutions that made them ill-suited for war-time leadership? Not unless being decorated war veterans from 1914-18 - as more than two-thirds of the French cabinet were - somehow disqualified them for war-time office. Edouard Daladier, Prime Minister between April 1938 and March 1940, was one such. As an article in the Free Press of 2 September 1939 reported, Daladier had already seen "about as much front-line fighting... as any man could." His commander-in-chief, General Maurice Gamelin, also received high marks from the same paper. Correspondent Harold Moore told the paper's readers that Gamelin, another veteran of the First World War, had assembled what was reputed to be "the finest army in Europe."

How then to reconcile all that made France's defeat unlikely and unpredicted with her undeniable collapse? At the outset it might be worth remarking that this defeat was not singular, as the Poles, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Dutch, the Belgians, even the English survivors from Dunkirk, would attest. As for the French themselves, the military and civilian leadership, there were certainly errors of judgment.

Some of them were long-term and abiding. They underestimated the speed with which armoured vehicles could negotiate the hilly, forested terrain of the Ardennes, an underestimation that left them content to install only light fortifications across that sector, and to deploy behind those defences only reserve infantry divisions of mainly middle-aged troops. Those miscalculations, in turn, were magnified by the related strategy of rapidly advancing the mobile left flank into Belgium at the first sign of a German assault, a plan which ensured that some of their best forces - including one of their three light mechanized divisions - were moving away from France in one direction just before seven panzer divisions started moving toward France in the opposite direction.

Significant, too, was the fact that their rearmament program was slower than what the future proved was necessary, partly because the country had emerged later from the world economic Depression than most great powers, and partly because that bitter experience had inspired a commandment for fiscal prudence. Moreover, and contrary to the notion that the French were technologically backward, their acute appreciation of the speed of technological change actually encouraged delaying mass production of the most modern weapons - tanks and fighter planes especially - until a crisis seemed imminent and their deployment more likely to determine the war's outcome.

Related in various ways to all of the foregoing was the signal failure in May 1940 to comprehend quickly enough the lightning pace of the early campaign. Having for too long concentrated on maximizing the armour and armaments on their own tanks - at the expense of speed and fuel range - the French high command could not adjust in a matter of weeks to the distances that enemy armour could traverse, its course paved in advance by the destructive intrusions of the German assault bombers. Calculations of the enemy's capacity for reaching its targets with adequate fuel and infantry support were consistently out by hours, a half-day, even a day. And related to this, in turn, was the interwar air command's too-prolonged fascination with strategic bombers, and the attendant playing down of fighter aircraft and of the on-field impact of dive bombers. They were not ignorant of any of these instruments of modern warfare. They knew, but blinded by the certainty that they were right, they had not understood.

The German victory remains a victory, and the French loss, a loss. But what has happened over the past 70 years, particularly over the past 30, has amounted to a slow and meticulous reappraisal of what actually happened in May-June 1940. Gone are the days of titles such as The Unfought Battle (1968). Today, current scholarship is in the process of dismantling the allegations that have so long supplied the comic with his bag of satirical jibes at France and the French. Slowly, the image of 100,000 Frenchmen with hands in the air is being replaced by the image of 123,000 gravestones.


Robert Young is professor emeritus of history at the University of Winnipeg. His latest book is An American By Degrees. The Extraordinary Lives of French Ambassador Jules Jusserand. It recently won the Alexander Isbister Prize for Non-Fiction awarded by the Manitoba Writers Guild.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2010 H1

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