Blitzkrieg: The Wages of Failing to Prepare
Two days and 77 years ago, 10 May, 1940, the German war machine slammed across the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, ending the so-called “Phony War” of the previous seven months. According to plan, the best units of the French Army, together with the British Expeditionary Force, moved forward into Belgium to meet the Nazi juggernaut. Secure behind the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, the French had few worries for their right flank. They had long assumed that the Germans would attempt to bypass the line by way of a sweeping right hook through Belgium, similar in concept to the initial German offensive of 1914. The Germans gave them what they expected to see, with probes against the line in the south coupled with aggressive armored formations in the north. As the Allies moved into Belgium, the German operational masterpiece began to unfold.
Unbeknownst to the French and British, the Germans had had determined that armored formations could penetrate the supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest, situated right at the hinge between the Allied right and left wings. The plan, conceived by General Erich von Manstein and approved by Hitler himself, called for seventy percent of the German panzer divisions to hit the French at this hinge and cross the Meuse River at the French city of Sedan. Once across the river the panzers would strike west, cutting off the Allied left wing at the knees.
The assault was led by the Germans’ best panzer commander, General Heinz Guderian. Think George S. Patton, except German. Guderian struck on 13 May, after the Allies had been pulled to his north. By 15 May, his panzers were racing west toward the English Channel, often outrunning their support units. They literally moved so fast they outran the orders of the Allies who were aimed at stopping them. The French could not issue orders fast enough to catch the Germans, let alone block them. I think the term these days is “working inside the enemy’s decision cycle,” or something along those lines.
Another guy you may have heard of, Erwin Rommel, had actually crossed the Meuse before Guderian with his 7th Panzer Division north of Sedan, in the Liege-Namur region. Like Guderian, Rommel moved so fast that the 7th became known as the “Ghost Division.” On 20 May, elements of Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Division reached Abbeville, on the English Channel, cutting off the entire Allied left wing. This would lead to the eventual evacuation of British and French forces from Dunkirk in late May and early June. There looks to be a pretty good movie about Dunkirk coming out this summer.
France itself would fall on 22 June. It took the Germans six weeks to accomplish what they could not achieve in four years during World War I. The nature of warfare had changed. The Germans were on the cutting edge and everyone else had to catch up. As a French general said to his prime minister on 25 May, “We have gone to war with a 1918 army against a German Army of 1939. It is sheer madness.” Fortunately everyone else eventually did catch up, but not before millions of lives were lost.
The moral of the story? In times of peace, prepare for war. Not the last war. The next war. The Germans took that maxim to heart between 1919 and 1939. The Allies, at least as far as land war in Europe went, did not. Failure to plan, and failure to properly fund preparations to implement those plans, costs lives. Learn from history.
This is obviously a simplified version of what happened. If you’re interested in learning more about the German campaign in the West, I recommend the following:
– The Bliztkrieg Legend by Karl-Heinz Frieser. This is the best in-depth look at the entire campaign.
– The Seeds of Disaster by Robert Doughty. A detailed examination of French Army doctrine as developed between the World Wars.
– The Path to Blitzkrieg by Robert Citino. Similar to the previous book, just with Germans.
– Blitzkrieg by Len Deighton. A good general account, without all the deep detail of Frieser’s account.
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About the Author: William “Bucky” Lawson has had a thing for military history since the sixth grade when he picked up a book about WorldWar I fighter aces. Since then he has studied warriors from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with a special emphasis on World War II. He has an unabashed love of the USA, military surplus bolt action rifles, AK-47s, and Walther handguns. He despises incabination and likes hamburgers, dogs, and cigars, but really who doesn’t? Sissies and vegans, that’s who. Bucky contributes to Strategy & Tactics Press, has a Masters Degree in Military History, and will probably proclaim himself an academic and wear one of those jackets with the patches on the elbows soon. Could be he’ll run down a PhD, maybe he’ll go hunting instead — Bucky likes the charred flesh of something that once had a parent, especially if he killed it himself. He is currently trying to figure out a way to export Texas politics to his native Virginia. Breach-Bang-Clear readers who talk to Bucky will be happy to know he’s only half the redneck he sounds and really isn’t inbred at all. Or not too much anyway, which is why he gets along so well with our other polrumptions. You can find historical bibliognost on Linked In here.