This was the first episode of The World at War to be truly informative in terms of events and interpretations with which I was not previously familiar. I doubt it will be the last.
Because the time period involved was so short, the conquest of France taking only five weeks from the beginning of the Blitzkrieg through the Ardennes to the beaten country requesting an Armistice, the episode had ample time to not merely trace the course of the attack on an almost daily basis, but to lay out very clearly the context of how the German Army could so thoroughly reverse its fortunes against the hereditary enemy that so comprehensively defeated it only twenty-one years previously.
The episode set out what France was as a country bettween the Wars, deeply riven by political divides between Right and Left that not only permeated Government – unstable, factional, forever falling and rising – but also the country and the people, suspicious and hating of each other. Worse still was the French Army, once so strong, but now in a severe decline. If you wanted a single word to sum up the malaise in France that made it vulnerable to German assault, it could only be complacency.
France had emerged from the First World War both strong but also innovative, in its adoption of tanks and motorised communications. As one former General succinctly put it, however, it suffered from that most insidious of failings, victory. Innovation lapsed, advances were forgotten, tanks were not developed, horses once more became a primary mode of warfare. Its Chief of Staff, General Ganelan, based all his tactics on the First World War, and was a stiff-necked fool who thought that he could not possibly be wrong. In the era between Wars he rarely if ever left his headquarters in Paris, once the attack began he removed to a chateau outside the city that – and this is scarcely credible – had neither telephone nor wireless and communicated by motorcycle dispatch riders carrying reports once an hour.
It’s difficult to watch what proved to be an almost complete display of ineptness without feeling contempt towards France but the episode, whilst unsparing, shone through with the intent to illuminate, not condemn. But it was exceptionally hard not to shower blame when the episode dealt with the ear;y 1940 Sahr Offensive.
The French Army’s tactics were wholly defensive, to sit back and await developments, to be purely reactionary, an open invitation to the enemy to take the initiative in terms of timing and thrust. But in early 1940, whilst Germany was engaged with Poland in the East, when all, and by that I mean all its tanks were on the Eastern Front, French troops entered Germany, pushing forward until they reached the as-yet incomplete Siegfried Line. And there they did nothing. They did not fire in case the Germans fired back. They took the attitude that if they weren’t causing trouble, why should we? It was a bitterly cold winter. Morale was no-existent. Then they turned round and went home. A former German General confirmed that the troops in that area could have held out at most two weeks.
But aside from this passivity, the French tactics were wholly defensive. They had constructed the Maginot Line, eighty-seven miles of linked defensive forts that, incongruously, were a miracle of advanced planning, thinking and innovation. But which stopped at the Belgian border, in case the Belgians thought France planned to abandon them, leaving a massive gap that any Army could just walk through and round.
Ganelan also miscalculated on two massive points. Believing the wooded Ardennes to be impenetrable, he placed only five Divisions, and those his least well-trained, equipped and experienced, to defend it. He assumed Germany would make for Paris, just as it had in 1914, and he placed his strongest troops, almost half his command, plus the British Expeditionary Force, to guard the route through Belgium, and sent them into that country once the attack began.
Which was exactly what the German Army expected him to do. They hit Holland rapidly, cutting it in two. They attacked Belgium. They sent Panzers through the Ardennes, round and behind the useless Maginot line, and then they wheeled north to the coast, to trap the French and British forces in Belgium, cutting them off from France.
It all sounds so simple now but it relied on France’s sclerotic systems and so it worked. Ganelan was sacked and replaced by an older man, hauled out of retrement, out of touch. Marshal Petain, a defeatist who blamed everything on the Marxists, became Prime Minister. The British forces saved themselves at Dunkirk, for which there was still some resentment even then, even from the most open and honest former French General.
Perhaps the most humanly affecting interview was with a former German General, a veteran of the First World War, in which Germany had failed to take Paris. Now the capital had not so much been captured as abandoned. Speaking of flying over the city in his private plane, he spoke honestly of his joy and exultation, and getting his pilot to land on the Place de la Concorde. You couldn’t condone his emotion, but you could understand it.
I was mildly surprised to hear practically nothing about Dunkirk but the name, but since the next episode will focus on the Battle for Britain, perhaps there’ll be more then. But this was all about the fall of France, the bitterness of and reasons for defeat, and to introduce what has been talked up as a ‘miracle’ favouring its ally would have been to shade the episode over into a partisanship it was determined to avoid.
So the real War has begun, and begun badly. It taunted us with the possibility that, even despite their failure to develop their forces and equipment and tactics and practically everything, had France’s mindset been different, the war could well have taken on a very different shape. But most of all it was about Hitler’s early successes in the West were all but fore-ordained by time, circumstance and a lack of will and spirit. A very sober story indeed.