The Collapse of France
Osprey Publishing, New York, 2017, 464 pages
Book Review published on: January 19, 2018
Robert Forczyk, author of Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1941-1942: Schwerpunkt and Where the Iron Crosses Grow: The Crimea 1941-1944, reassesses the collapse of France in 1940 in Case Red: The Collapse of France. Forcyzk goes beyond previous literature of France’s defeat that centers on Germany’s initial offense in the west, Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), focusing instead on the final three weeks, Fall Rot (Case Red), which resulted in France’s defeat in June 1940.
Forczyk asserts previous works of literature on the French defeat are far too generalized in causality to fit actual battlefield circumstances. The French defeat is ascribed to either military incompetence or moral decay, with six specific factors usually citied as proximate causes of catastrophe:
- deficiencies in morale, caused by widespread pacifisms and defeatism;
- faulty French military doctrine, particularly concerning maneuver warfare and the use of tanks;
- inadequate training of reserves in peacetime that made the army ill equipped to fight a modern war;
- the detrimental effects of the Maginot Line, which is alleged to have corrupted the fighting spirit of the French army and diverted resources that would have been better spent on developing armored divisions;
- lackluster senior military leadership who made multiple mistakes before the campaign and also proved unable to react accordingly on a modern dynamic battlefield; and
- irreconcilable political divisions and/or corruption within France’s Third Republic, which is alleged to have undermined the nation’s ability to unite in the face of invasion.
The author agrees that these traditional explanations may have merit but argues they also fail to explain a number of things. For example, pacifist and defeatist attitudes existed, particularly during the Battle of Sedan, but were not evident according to his research in regular and colonial troops.
Forcyzk proposes the indispensable factors that led to French defeat included the lack of effective air support, insufficient tactical level defensive firepower, overreliance on coalition warfare, inability to modernize the military in a timely manner, and obsession with maintaining an image as a colonial power. He describes the animosity of French leaders toward their British allies that developed during the Battle of France. The French leaders blamed Britain for pressuring France into being a signatory to a series of military agreements with Poland that resulted in war with Germany. France also felt that Britain failed in living up to expectations in the size of the British Expeditionary Force and the number of Royal Air Force squadrons deployed to France. The author recounts a contentious meeting between British and French leaders at Briare on 11 June 1940. In the meeting, the French leaders remained defiant in their demands for additional Royal Army and Royal Air Force support, while French army generals Maxime Weygand and Philippe Petain declared that defeat was imminent and were pushing for an armistice with Germany.
The author describes French military leadership as inept, defeatist, and out of touch. Petain, hero of World War I, was eighty-four years of age in May 1940. He is reported to have slept through most War Cabinet meetings and to have opened his mouth only to deliver cynical tirades against the English, the socialists, or anyone else he thought to blame for French failure at the front.
Weygand, selected as supreme commander following Gen. Maurice Gamelin’s dismissal, is described as extremely resentful that he had been given a bad hand, and that he would be held responsible for France’s defeat. Weygand’s belief that the German offensive would stall as it had done in 1918 reflected just how out of touch he and many of the senior French army leaders were.
A constant theme throughout Case Red was the Luftwaffe’s ability in providing continuous, decisive air support to maneuver units through the French campaign. The French military planners failed in appreciating a combined-arms approach that integrated air and maneuver units. Forcyzk describes numerous missed opportunities where an Allied air attack on massed German armor formations refueling or at bridge crossings could have stalled attacking German maneuver forces.
Additionally, the German military leaders’ decision to include improved communications in its armored vehicles presented operational opportunities denied to the French army. This provided German maneuver commanders rapid “on the spot” decision-making, with subordinate commanders using initiative in taking advantage of fleeting opportunities such as Gen. Heinz Guderian and his Panzerkorps crossing of the Meuse River. The French army’s preference for World War I landline communications and runners simply prevented the French army from responding timely to the ever-changing threat posed by German forces on the battlefield.
Case Red challenges the popular myth of French military incompetence and cowardice by reminding the reader that the French army fought bravely and was successful at the Battles of Hannut, Moncornet, and Stonne, to name a few. The French army also capably covered the British retreat to and evacuation from Dunkirk. The bravery of French soldiers and airmen was constantly on display throughout the campaign but undone by the lack of adequate firepower, logistics, and airpower. The real tragedy is that French leaders concluded the outcome early on but continued to squander their soldiers’ lives as they had done a generation earlier.
While Forczyk is commendable in describing major engagements in sufficient detail, there is little regarding French operational-level military strategy during the campaign beyond its initial defense plans in May 1940. The use of unit abbreviations and too few maps interrupts the flow of reading at times. Case Red serves as a warning to nations that equate technological superiority with combat readiness or those that make the assumption that time will be available to build and to improve military capabilities. The French hubris from victory in World War I, overreliance on coalition warfare, and failure to ensure timely fielding of new military equipment resulted in its humiliating defeat in 1940. Case Red is highly recommended for anyone interested in the study of the fall of France, the French army, or the war in Western Europe. It would make a great addition to Lloyd Clark’s Blitzkrieg.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas