Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2016, 480 pages
Book Review published on: April 28, 2017
Time magazine commented in August 1939 that French army Gen. Maurice Gamelin was head, by unanimous acclaim, of the world’s finest military machine. The sentiment was echoed by English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who remarked that the French had an incomparable military machine, and that the French army was the most perfectly trained and faithful mobile force in Europe. Just nine months later, Germany launched a military offensive in France and the Low Countries that remains one of the most remarkable military campaigns in Western history. The decisive victory over a first-class military, arguably one of the most impressive ever, shocked the world, not for its horror but for the lack of it.
Professor Lloyd Clark, of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and University of Buckingham, reassesses how the German military achieved in six and a half weeks in 1940 what it could not accomplish in over four years of fighting a generation earlier. Clark challenges assertions of previous historians that the blitzkrieg (lightning war) concept was revolutionary. He states that the blitzkrieg was nothing new as Prussian, and later German military leaders, had sought decisive battles of annihilation using speed and maneuver. Clark credits the German victory to superior communications, quickly integrating lessons learned from the Poland campaign, and aggressive leaders.
The German military leaders’ decision to include improved communications in its armored vehicles provided operational opportunities denied to the Germany army in World War I. The doctrinal requirement for communications facilitated rapid “on the spot” decision making with subordinate commanders using initiative to take advantage of fleeting opportunities, including Panzer Corps Guderian’s crossing of the Meuse River. Clark credits German military leaders with the ability to quickly integrate lessons learned from the Poland campaign where small groups of Luftwaffe aircraft flew in support of German maneuver units instead of the traditional large group attacks on targets in the enemy’s rear. This enabled the Luftwaffe to provide continuous decisive air support to maneuver units throughout the French campaign. Clark describes the actions of Gen. Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division as an example of the aggressiveness of more youthful German leaders, which played a critical role in undermining French battle rhythm.
Clark attributes the French army’s defeat to lack of communications, inability to adapt, and a rearmament program that was too little, too late. The French relied on radios only when there was no other means of communications available. Their concept of slow tempo warfare did not require flexible communications so commanders could rely on field phones and couriers. The fast pace and maneuver of German units denied French military leaders the ability to battle track and communicate. Lack of wireless communications and an inability to battle track, along with an inflexible mindset, made it impossible for French leaders to adjust to changing conditions on the battlefield. The robust French rearmament program was too late in ensuring French military units had the opportunity to receive, integrate, and train with new equipment. The French army found itself building fighting positions during the Phony War instead of integrating and training on new equipment.
Blitzkrieg serves as a warning to nations that equate technological superiority with combat readiness or makes the assumption that time will be available to build and improve military capabilities. Germany’s propaganda campaigns of German military superiority proved disastrously counterproductive as they persuaded Adolf Hitler and his generals that they could crush other militaries. Blitzkrieg is highly recommended for anyone interested in the study of the fall of France, the German army, or the war in Western Europe.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas