Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fall of France, 5: Yeah. About the French? They were involved, too.

So here's the latest in a continuing series that I was thinking was maybe played out. But away on a blog that I read all the time, by a great, natural teacher from whom I've learned a lot (who, just to get this out of the way, I admit is not without his quirks) chooses to revisit himself (original here, "hoisted from the archives" here:

Ernest May's Strange Victory is an excellent book, a wonderful book. [Link  mine, since you can do that now.] However, I'm not sure that it gets the story of the Fall of France right. I finished it thinking that since Ernest May is a historian of intelligence, he blames the collapse predominantly on intelligence failures--but that another historian who focused on something else could equally well and with equal evidence blame the collapse on other key factors.
Even after the misjudgment that was the French initial deployment. . . .[should not have been fatal.] . . . Meuse was a strong position. And once it was clear that there was a major attack through the Ardennes, the French Army was not that slow to respond.
From Strange Victory and from William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic, we can track the French reaction to the Nazi attack across the Meuse starting on May 10, 1940. The first thing to note is that the Nazi lead elements took up to 70% casualties and kept coming--indicative of extraordinary ideological commitment. In a world in which any "normal" unit breaks at 25% casualties or so, it's hard to beat people who keep coming at you: you can only hope that the enemy doesn't have that many of them. Had the Nazi soldiers been "normal," the initial attack by the seven panzer divisions would probably have failed, and the French would have had time to redeploy. [Itals. mine.]
. . . .[And they did] . . . . three divisions from the general reserve were fed into the southern end of the Ardennees on the 13th of May. The French high command clearly knew it was a trouble spot.
By May 15, the French First Armored division had been switched from the Belgian plain to the Ninth Army Ardennes sector, infantry formations had ben ordered to assemble behind the Ninth Army to form a new Sixth Army, and the Second Armored division as well had been ordered to assemble in the Sixth Army sector. . . . Fourth Armored division [was] . . .told to attack the southern flank of the Nazis as their tanks broke through.
So what happened to all these forces . . . [?]
By May 16, as Shirer puts it:
(689): The three heavy [armored divisions] the French had, all of which in May 10 had been stationed... within 50 miles of the Meuse at Sedan and Mezieres, which they could have reached by road overnight, had thus been squandered.... Not one had been properly deployed.... By now, May 16, they no longer counted. There remained only the newly formed 4th [armored division], commanded by de Gaulle, which was below strength and without divisional training..."
. . . . The French high command of Gamelin and Georges saw the situation developing and threw 800 tanks in four armored divisions plus between six and ten infantry divisions from their strategic reserve in front of the Nazi breakthrough in plenty of time: the Nazis, after all, had only 1000 tanks in their breakthrough seven panzer division. Yet . . . it did no good. 
With such an extremely low level of performance in a running battle, it seems likely that the French in 1940 would have been decisively defeated no matter how good their intelligence and operational leadership had been.. . .
The most important thing to note: the French were not unique. This happened to everybody: to the Poles, to the Dutch, to the Belgians, to the French, to the British, to the Yugoslavs, to the Greeks, to the Russians, and to the Americans at Kasserine Pass. In every case, the initial encounter with the Nazi army is a catastrophe.
It was only those who had enormous strategic depth who had the time to figure out what was going on and how to fight it.

I italicise something I find particularly problematic. It is, of course, wrong to assert that 70% casualties in spearhead units somehow break a law of war. But if it did, could we really comfortably turn to the "ideology" of the fighting men? Even without having a theoretical apparatus to turn to, I am profoundly suspicious of the claim that an ideology makes you a better soldier, while the implicit failure of "democratic" ideology to successfullly oppose "Nazi" leads us to draw unfortunate conclusions. Which is precisely why these claims get made. 

Here's another explanation for what happened on the Meuse that spring of 1940:

That's the Red Army trying to fake being an entire heavy cavalry corps charging at the same time. It's magnificent, but it's not.... Oh, you know the rest. The claim is that it could have worked, if Ney had just given a better speech before he launched the charge:

But he didn't, and that's that.

Having referenced Theoden King's death ride, I find that at the end of this post, I've come back round to it in an unexpected way. It's really unfortunate. This whole "Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors" thing keeps coming back round to haunt us in our latter days, including in LOTR.  That's what makes it so dangerous, and worth committing a blog post to countering, even when it is not being consciously put forward. 

So can we get rid of Nazi Supermen in this argument? We can. There are clues to this mystery that point to another culprit and another solution.
 So here's the general picture:



I kind of hate it that the Meuse/Maaß disappears into the details even in the satellite view. It's not an inconsequential river by any means, and, incidentally, besides being horribly pedantic, my dual name convention is trying to get at the way that it, and its kissing cousin, the Escaut/Scheldt, sometimes disappear from historical geography because of linguistic confusion. What we're supposed to get out of this is the way that the river forms the drainage ditch along the foot of the uplands. It's a naturally defensible river on the edge of the French state -- a feature, not a bug.

Potential defences need to be realised. You can line an army up along them, or you can line fortresses along them. The latter are a capital-intensive substitute for the former, and this is why the story of the fortress is the story of the French state. Robert Citino would have us believe, not without reason, that cavalry is the story of the German state. I know, he doesn't put it that way. He talks about "operational warfare;" I just think that forts have their place to play in operational warfare; and, anyway, that Prussian-Germany is a particular slice of Germany, and far from the tastiest. (Seriously: the Austrian Staatsarchiv cafeteria used to do a mean schnitzel. The less said of its "chili" the better --it literally used the same recipe as their "Chinese stew," substitute bean sprouts for kidney beans-- but the schnitzel was great.)
In May of 1940, that was 77 infantry divisions, including 3 "motorised" by the French definition, 3 cavalry, 3 Divisions légères mechanisée (DLMs), and 3, increased to 4 Divisions cuirasée du reserve (DCRs). If the last phrase calls to mind video clips like the ones I introduced this post with, well, you're a romantic like me. That's not what it means; they're armoured divisions of the reserve mobilisation. And that's not the only confusing aspect of the names here. The DLMs were anything but "light." They were born from light cavalry formations and directly transposed onto French strategic resources in the same role of couverture, but, the divisions they replaced were intended to apply the arme blanche if occasion arose, and that's pretty much where the DLMs got to in the end. In material terms, DLMs were supposed to be units of Somua S-35s, while DCRs were supposed to be units of Char Bs. In practice, as I'm sure you know, they had great lashings of less impressive tanks instead, because the French couldn't afford to build all the first class machines they wanted. Any more than anyone else could, of course.  Now go follow those links and drink in how awesomely grognardish Wikipedia articles have become. There was a day when this kind of data was just plain not available to historians. The days when Shirer was writing, for example; not that it affects his arguments any, although I can think of others that are obsolete. (Oh, Audit of War; what would I have to occupy my burning hate if you weren't around?) 
So the instant takeaway here is that the "four armoured divisions" to which Brad Delong refers are actually "tank circusses." Now, this isn't quite true. The French decided that they wanted their heavy armoured assault asset pools to be capable of ensemble manoeuvre, and so gave them infantry, artillery, and subordinate headquarters. This made the DCRs potent units with 4 battalions of heavy tanks, 2 battalions of infantry, and a regiment of artillery; it did not, however, given them anything like enough infantry, artillery, or, crucially, a reconnaissance regiment.* DCRs were assumed to operate under couverture. Will they run out of  gas? Char Bs have 280hp engines driving 28 ton hulls. They're not designed for long road marches. Of course they'll run out of gas if you try throwing them around as though they were.

So, as I've noted before, the final Allied plan called for the two DLMs of Prioux's Cavalry Corps to lunge into the Gembloux Gap , while 1st DLM, best prepared and best equipped of the three, was switched from forming the key element of the couverture in the Ardennes to a lunge northwards to link up with the Dutch for various reasons that sounded good at the time. And, contra the implicit apology for the American debacle at Kasserine/obviously-not-fully-thought-out-"God's-On-Our-Side"-implicit-argument-for-Fascism, the DLMs did just fine where they were used. Indeed, from Erich Hoeppner's apparent perspective, Prioux wasn't covering a defensive deployment, but rather threatening the flank of the German main effort.

Which, as we've been told many times, was coming through the Ardennes directly for Sedan. Now, as practically everyone who has written seriously on the subject will note at some point or another, the French knew that it was perfectly possible that the Germans would show up in front of Sedan within sixty hours and attempt to launch an assault crossing. 

If we can take anything away from the way that two platoons of the Chasseurs ardennais managed to hold up Guderian's core for six hours at Bodelange, this wasn't a matter of Nazi supermen being our superiors. It was a matter of a thin road network restricting movements. The flip side of that was that blocking positions were easily outflanked, however. So you pull out a march table, figure out how many blocking positions a unit will have time to take up, add in enough time for the poor bloody infantry to struggle through the Ardennes bush to enfilading positions, and you get how many hours it will take the enemy's van to reach the Meuse. Are we then surprised that the best blocking features are along the Belgian frontier? No, that would another case of "feature, not a bug." 

So the Germans have reached the Meuse, pretty much on schedule. What happens now? If you're the French High Command, you think, "a buildup of forces." Why do you think that? Because of the roads, that's why. Again, you turn to your march tables. Every unit takes up some space. Once you've estimated column march speed, you have a pretty clear idea of how many feet of units are going to be on your front on the morning of May 13. You won't necessarily know what kind of units, but if you've ever driven a mountain road, you know that the basic parameters of choice balance lots of sports cars against a much smaller number of semis. In the military paradigm of 1940, twenty ton tanks are sports cars, and artillery are semis. Panzergruppe von Kleist will have available on the shores of the Meuse on the morning of 13 May Guderian's 19th Armoured Corps. (Follow along with Florian K. Rothbrust's Guderian's XIXth Panzer Corps And the Battle of France if you can get it.) 

It consists of 2nd, 1st and 10th Armoured** Divisions from right to left. 1st Panzer is reinforced with Infantry Regiment Großdeutchsland, giving it four armoured regiments organised into two Regimente grouped into a brigade, plus an infantry brigade of three rifle battalions plus two weapons companies, plus, outside the division, an infantry regiment of three rifle and one heavy weapon battalions. Plus, besides the embarrassing excess of infantry guns, a mere 36 105mm gun-howitzers in a single field artillery regiment. Besides this, 1st Panzer has a single reinforced artillery regiment from corps assets and has poached a battery of 12 105s from the divisions to either side. Notice, the next time you're in a wearying "Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors/their armoured doctrine was teh awesome" debate, that the Germans are putting their motorised infantry under separate headquarters from their armour. Guderian is going to be spending a wearying amount of time over the next few days separating his armour and infantry when they start to get intermingled. 

On the defence, the logic is very simple: fortresses save men. Now, the Maginot Line ends twenty miles east of Sedan, as extending it along the Belgian frontier would have been expensive and have Sent the Wrong Message, but the natural strength of the Meuse line is such that it is easily reinforced by field fortifications. Right? Right. So that's what the second-echelon reservists stationed around Sedan have been up to for the last eight months. Except for when the ground was frozen, or soaked by the spring freshette. Which was most of the time. And to the limits of their available materials, which were not what they could have been. (For which see Eugenia Kiesling's much more boring but more important book that people could have been reading instead of May. Sixty-one bunkers have been completed in this key sector, to free men up for action elsewhere; but many more are in an incomplete state this morning of the 13th. (Hans Frieser's Blitzkrieg-Legende, now in translation.)

So the defences weren't very strong. It's too bad that the French couldn't have relied on the old works at Sedan. Dunquerque's works were far more obsolete than Sedan, but they worked brilliantly in 1940, after all. But that's the thing. What works at Dunquerque works because of immemorial geography. It was very old civil engineering that pierced the North Sea barriers to let the standing water and ships out, but sluices that can be opened can be closed, no matter how old they are. Forts that depend on the commanding heights being out of artillery distance of the works become obsolete when artillery ranges increase.  The army of Napoleon is hoist on its own petard. That's Sedan. But, on the other hand, the Germans are trying to attack into Sedan. Aren't they just as much under the threat of guns concentrated on the far bank of the Meuse? Aren't they attacking a loop of the river? That means that, while the infantry defenders are stretched, the artillery within the loop are, by the same token, concentrated. This is not a point that the French have missed. The series B 55th Infantry Division defending Sedan had two march and one fortress infantry brigade, which may or may not have been as mishandled and disorganised as some think; but it had 171 guns, where a Commonwealth division was otherwise the envy of its counterparts with 72. Guderian's entire corps was allocated, including all available army level assets, only 180 tubes. (Though you can play some games with the numbers.)  

Shorter Sichelschnitt: bring a sabre to a gunfight. This is exactly the scenario in my two clips, playing out.

So how is Guderian's 19th Armoured Corps expected to win this one?  Give an awesome speech and watch the orcs run away? Well, that doesn't seem so plausible. And, in fact, 2nd and 10th Armoured Divisions were both repulsed by stout French resistance and withering artillery fire. Matters are different on 1st Panzer's front in the centre, however. It is here that the crucial penetration is made, and that Colonel Balck's relentless infantry demonstrates the superiority of the Ideal to the grossly materialistic conceptions of the bourgeois West. I wouldn't call this the decisive moment in the campaign: other elements of the armoured group make it across the Meuse, including its single horsed cavalry formation, and there's still the question of the handling of the reserves to consider (not that I'm going to do that today. As usual, my ambition exceeds my attention span.) But it takes some explaining.

So what happened? The short answer is that 1500 German aircraft happened. Six hundred bombers, 250 dive bombers, 500 single-engined fighters and 120 twins. I have no idea whether that's a count of sorties, actual aircraft, or even  nominal squadron strengths, but it's a lot of planes by the standards of 1940. Of course, it's also not a lot of planes at all by the standards of the carpet bombings of 1944 that didn't generate a decisive breakthrough. Now, it's also a tactical situation such as air commanders could only dream of, with the river clearly demarcating the opposing lines on a bright, still day, the kind of day and circumstance on which even the primitive combat air control technology of 1940 could flourish. Even so, are we back to Nazi Supermen Being Our Superiors? 

In a word, no; just as in the carpet bombings of 1944, the actual physical damage done by all of these bombs was fairly slight. Bunkers weren't busted, guns weren't smashed, and men who duck-and-covered in time were fine. Yes two infantry regiments got across the Meuse in the centre just fine, even as single infantry regiments attacking on either flank were brought to a standstill by infantry resistance and artillery fire. It's the artillery that's missing in the centre.

Artillery fire. Robert Doughty is, in my opinion, far too interested in "doctrine" for his own good. Again, I can't point to a theoretical apparatus to back up my intuition, but I can tell an over-extended heuristic when I see one. But he's also written a close and detailed study of the defeat at Sedan, and, sometimes, details are crucial. The issue at Sedan was that the French army's artillery was still under the dedicated control of battery-level forward observers. There was, as yet, no forward observer net. There couldn't be, because radio technology wasn't sophisticated enough yet. The British, rich in everything except units on the ground, have lately supplied their field artillery regiment forward observers with radios, so that the guns can be brought into action on the march by a single observer riding with the advance guard. It's an awesome advance in operational flexibility, so, really, boo to the penny pinchers who vetoed the "long range" 25 pounder design. 

Unfortunately, even this revolutionary new radio is so big that it has to be carted around in what my informer describes as a "sedan car." If the observer doesn't want to sit in his car in full view of the enemy calling in fire, he has a couple hundred yards of relay cable that he can play out between a less conspicuous observing position and his sedan car. (I'm sorry, I know that is a perfectly acceptable Britishism, but I still think it's hilarious.) 

The French? They're stuck with telephones. Telephones with cables. Cables that they have to play out on the ground between observer and battery headquarters. If you want to protect these cables against counterbattery fire, you have to bury them. Which is something that mostly hasn't been done in this sector, because, after all, we're expecting a mobile war, and having to wait to move until  you've dug up all your cables is the antithesis of mobility. Now, if there were more cables... but, unfortunately, there aren't. Shortages, you know. 

Doughty notes that the German bombs cut the cables, before moving on to Important Things, but, this is the important thing. All of those bombers have succeeded in their role --the bog standard, key artillery role of counterbattery fire. The asset that the French relied upon has been successfully countered. The next battle will be the mobile one, in the rear of the Sedan position. 

Now the question is whether the Germans can defeat the elephants. If this were intended as an exhaustively organised and polished bit of writing, I would now be cutting-and-pasting my earlier discussion of the DCRs down here and fixing all the loose ends. But it is a beautiful day here in Vancouver that I've already wasted all too much of. I shall probably use up the rest of it vacuuming my apartment, but it is sorely needed, and, thanks to having advanced to the coveted status of "full time" employee at the day job, I have to work a great deal less, so that I have a full day off still to come tomorrow. I mention this because I'm ready to start it now, even if it won't officially begin until I hit Starbucks tomorrow morning. And with that in prospect, I feel the strongest desire to hit "Publish" and be done.

I still need a conclusion, however, and my conscience is niggling at me. "Enjoy a vanilla latte at sunrise" is fine  for me, it's perhaps not as good a conclusion to this post. 

Fine: the answer to the mystery is this: it was the Luftwaffe, with a shallow-penetrating fragmentation bomb, at Sedan. So what the French needed in 1940 was more fighters. Wow! Supreme revisionism, or what?

*Look, I'm a Canadian. To me, infantry comes in battalions, and tanks, armour, artillery and recce in regiments, with companies, squadrons and batteries below and brigades above.You may think in terms of regiments as base units. Or you may think of demi-brigades, tank corps, or motor rifle armies or artillery battalions. Whatever. It's not any less confusing, it's just the way that you choose to do it. You've got to choose some scheme and be consistent, or be constantly spellling out unhelpful details. You see where I'm going with this.
**Given that we're not making a useful distinction, I'm incined to regard the use of "Panzer Division" as an affectation that, given our continuing cultural tendency to glamourise the Nazi regime, ought be avoided. But that's just me.



  1. The French certainly started the strategic reserve moving, but as far as I know not that much of it engaged the Germans at Sedan. IIRC DCR 3 and the motorised infantry got there. Cue discussion of tank transporters, heavy diesel fitters, staff operating procedures and the pre-Mitterand era French telecomms network (I'm too young to have actually handed a jeton to the post office clerk and waited for her to set up the call and point me to the booth, but my school French textbooks still thought 15-year old Brits needed that information as a survival skill).

    I think it mischaracterises May to call him an intelligence historian - a lot of his argument isn't so much about intelligence per se. as about the whole C3I/C4ISTAR/whatever system (as befits someone conditioned to the 1980s US defence establishment). That certainly does include radio vs. wire, and perhaps even more so, a binary-tree rather than scalefree-mesh network structure.

    (Suddenly it comes to mind that you can't catch a train in France without going via Paris and there's a reason for that.)

  2. Sure, France is a network. I'm sure that one could come up with an analogy between a lack of lateral connections in the French artillery control organisation and the French rail network, but then I'd have to know more than I do about how the French artillery was organised. All that we do know is that fire in the 1st Armoured Division sector switched back to pre-registered sites in the German rear, while most of the corps guns were hitched up and sent to the rear.

    Leading Alister Horne to report blather about how if the French artillery was retreating, you had to know that moral rot had reached the core of the Republic. Well, no, Alister. Maybe they didn't have anything to shoot at.

  3. Not just the artillery, the whole command structure. More expensive and less mobile links - a more hierarchical structure, usually.

    Horne, what an idiot.

  4. A thought. The French had quite a lot of fighters, and the RAF deployed quite a few too. In fact, ISTR the AdlA had more fighters on the line at the beginning of Case RED than on the 10th of May. The AASF and BEF Air Component fighter squadrons did pretty well in scoreboard terms. I have no reason to think the French were much worse (the Dewoitine 520 was a fairly impressive aircraft).

    But every campaign memoir ever describes German air superiority. And, well, they brought off the CAS and interdiction operation over Sedan.

    And 2 Group RAF lost three in four aircraft over Sedan trying to hit the bridges. They did in fact get one bridge and they nearly killed Guderian, Kleist, and von Rundstedt at various moments (all three, in fact, together on the damn' bridge), but in the end they got nothing but dead heroes. The French tactical air didn't do any better although they weren't flying Fairey Battles.

    So is the question really whether the French didn't have enough air defence rather than fighters per se? The German strategic air operation against the Paris area didn't work well. RAF accounts mention the huge concentration of light flak at Sedan, which the Germans also used for direct fire support. And the RAF did bring over five mobile radar units in 80 Wing, the only Allied or German radar that took part.

    I've never heard an account of exactly how those radars were used, who got the information, or much else but that they were blown up to deny them to the enemy somewhere near Dunkirk. (Hmm, how many vehicles in a Chain Home Mobile radar unit?)


  6. The French had a radio-based early detection system. A semi-technical discussion can be found in, for example, Brown.. It wasn't very good, but, at this point, neither was Chain Home Low, in the case of trying to control a tactical battle against enemy aircraft approaching over land. Even given quality data, the radio infrastructure for controlling the action was severely lacking.

    What the Allies needed was clear air superiority, or, better yet, supremacy, over the front. And to give them credit, that was exactly what they were working towards in 1940. They also needed more HAA at Sedan. Interestingly, the French were set on using their 75s as dual-purpose field guns/AA, rather in the way that the Germans later ended up using their 88s.

    For me, the key point here is that the Germans ended up using a gun that gave almost 7 tons at the towbar in a role where the 75 gave less than 1. Of course, they got decent AA capacity out of it in return. But what does that say about their commitment to manoeuvre? And about the substructural economic basis of manoeuvre?

  7. but it was the 4x20mm light flak that did for 2 Group, and I've read [handwave] that it worked rather well in direct fire against the French bunkers. that's quite a lot more manoeuvre-y.

  8. There's been some great amateur work on the wartime light automatic flak. I think the takeaway from Williams work is that against surface targets, light AA such as the Oerlikon came closer to being a replacement for heavy (medium) machine guns then as effective anti-hard target weapons. That being said, there is a great deal to be said for having suppressive fire on call.

    The question then is where you get your ammunition from? The poor bloody infantry may do the dying, but the teamsters do the hauling.