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View Full Version : It's 1940 and you're General Gamelin...



cape_royds
28 Jan 07,, 03:23
How would you defend France?

Would you adopt an aggressive, forward defense as did Gamelin with his Dyle Plan, trying to launch an advance into Belgium simultaneous with the Germans?

Or would you dig in along the frontier or some river, and try to concentrate your reserves for counter-attack?

How would you keep the BEF's Channel Ports out of range of German fighters (i.e. so bombers would be mostly unescorted)? How would you protect your key rail junctions in northern France? How would you prevent the Germans from obtaining submarine bases in the Low Countries? These were all considerations behind the Dyle Plan, so any alternative should take them into account as well.

Note that I'm asking this question as it existed in 1940. I would prefer to avoid in this thread much speculation on alternative French defense or foreign policies prior to that time, and concentrate on the operational possibilities as they existed during that fateful spring.


Now I think a forward defense was the wrong strategy, simply on general principles. It forsook the advantages of both the offensive and the defensive. It left the timing of the battle and the main thrust of the battle in the enemy's hands, while at the same time moving the Allied armies further from their logistical base and onto unprepared, indeed unreconnoitred, ground. It sent the larger part of the Allied armies into motion before the main thrust of the enemy could be recognized. The Allies forsook many of their lateral roads and railways and chose to operate on exterior lines.

World War Two featured a number of forward defense fiascoes, such as the USSR's war plan in 1941, Britain's in Malaya in 1942, or Rommel's in France in 1944. But none of these were quite as decisive in shaping the whole future of the war, and perhaps of the world, as the French defeat of May 1940.

Why did Gamelin choose to stake it all on a gamble, on a plan in its way even more aggressive and risky than Plan XVII in the previous war?

And why does Gamelin have a reputation in history for being passive, when in fact his strategy was reckless beyond anything conceivable by his mentor Foch?

dalem
28 Jan 07,, 09:52
I'd start by putting a telephone in my army command post.

But that's just me.

-dale

deadkenny
28 Jan 07,, 14:33
A rather complicated question that one could write a great deal on. On a tangent I would tend to disagree with your characterization of the German defense in France in 1944 being either "Rommel's" or a "forward defense that ended in a fiasco" - presumably due to the fact that it was a forward defense. Perhaps that's a discussion for another thread.

Regarding the French in 1940, many of their problems were systemic, and not easily addressed by a simple change in strategy. Their entire command structure, doctrine, training, unit organization and 'philosophy' were problems. The French were looking to re-fight WWI on the most favourable terms - which meant either along their fort line (Maginot) or in Belgium, in order to keep the fighting off of French territory to the maximum possible extent. The Dyle Plan was not designed to be an aggressive offensive move, but simply to advance the front line as far as possible forward into Belgium, before the 'static' front line was established (as it was conceived of in the plan). In that sense it was quite different from the WWI Plan XVII, which was an aggressive offensive designed to defeat the enemy.

In terms of their approach to the 1940 campaign, I would point out the critical flaws, which were too much 'weight' assigned to the advance into Belgium combined with a lack of strategic reserves and the assumption that the Germans would not be able to come through the Ardennes, or at least not quickly enough to pose a serious threat. Of course the fact that the Germans came through the Ardennes is a large part of the reason for the resulting collapse of the French. You make an excellent point about the French plan committing to an advance BEFORE recognizing the (true) direction of the German attack.

So, accepting all of the other shortcomings of the French in 1940, and also trying to avoid the pure 'hindsight' type of response, I would propose the following changes to the defense:

1. Advance into Belgium with fewer forces, but still advance in.

2. Form a strategic reserve with the forces saved from point 1, with which to respond once the German's main direction of attack is identified.

3. Do not ASSUME that the Ardennes sector is safe - advance some forces into the Ardennes to delay and give early warning of any German advance through this area.

By point 3 I'm not suggesting that any special provision should be made for the Ardennes, since that would be purely based on hindsight. However, I am suggesting that it could be defended as any other sector of the front, and not left especially 'weak'.

Even with all that, the French would still have to contend with the other problems mentioned, as well as poor morale (the troops couldn't ignore the fact that many much better opportunities to fight the Germans had been missed, and they were now having to fight a much stronger opponent). Given the slow command chain and overall slow response of the French forces, it is likely that they would not have been able to handle any German breakthrough, once it occurred. However, they could have at least made achieving that initial breakthrough take much longer and been more costly for the Germans than it was historically.

cape_royds
29 Jan 07,, 00:22
deadkenny:

You're right that the Plan D was not designed as a war-winning offensive, as was Plan XVII. Plan D was designed to gain space, shorten the overall frontage, and protect the Channel Ports, although no doubt the French also didn't mind keeping the devastation of war as much as possible in Belgium.

But I stick with my criticism that the Dyle Plan was recklessly aggressive. Aggressive because it sent the most part of the Allied armies rushing forward, and reckless because it did so after first ceding the initiative to the enemy. At least Plan XVII, with all its faults, tried to seize the initiative (through quicker mobilization) and allowed for a strategic reserve.


dalem:

I accept the criticism that the Allied command and communication structure was too cumbersome. But for the sake of argument, I'll undertake an apologia.

I believe that General Georges was in command of the operational front, and his HQ was adequately equipped. Gamelin for his part was deliberately trying to avoid interfering in the operational command, and to let his subordinates fight the battle. Gamelin was also trying to insulate the fighting commands from political meddling from above. By keeping his own HQ at arm's length, I think he was hoping to preserve his command integrity. He would make the plans, his generals would fight the battle, and the VIP's would be kept in the anteroom.

Of course, the problem was that Gamelin's battle plan was fundamentally wrong and a change could only be coordinated at the highest level, a task for which his HQ was unsuited.

But I think too much gets made of the defects of the Allied command and control problems. The real difficulty was that their battle plan set most of their armies onto the roads, at the same time, and on the first day. No matter how many radio command cars you could give Gort or Blanchard, no communication network of that time would allow an orderly rerouting and redeployment at short notice.

The Germans are rightly praised for their more front-led operational command, at least in their mechanized forces. They still had problems with loss of contact. But what was critical was that the Germans had the initiative and were at least more or less following their own plan, rather than trying to completely reformulate their plan in mid-battle.

Put it this way: imagine if for some reason the Germans had been obliged to reroute those columns of theirs which were strung along miles of road in the Ardennes. All the proper doctrine in the world wouldn't have been of very much help.

Again, I think the worst problem for the Allies was their bad operational plan, rather than their command and control arrangements. Redeploying large armies with long logistical tails, when they are in the midst of long road marches, is inherently prone to disaster. And Gamelin's Plan D deliberately sent most of the Allied armies onto the roads, without a strategic reserve, while leaving the timing of the battle in the hands of the enemy.

I think if anything Gamelin was too sanguine about the prospects offered by motorized mobility. He overestimated his own armies' flexibility and underestimated the clumsiness of motorized columns. This is not only revealed in his Dyle concept, but also by his various counter-attack orders during the Battle of France (although the desperate circumstances no doubt account for some of the impracticability of those counter-attacks).

So much for apologia. Now back to the question of alternatives.


Looking at the map, it's really not a bad idea to anchor the Allied left on Antwerp. Such an advance shortens the frontage, keeps Ostend and Zeebrugge in Allied hands, buffers the Channel ports, and gives the Belgians a chance to rally. As long as the hinge of that advance is secure, it's by no means a blunder.

But as deadkenny pointed out, the hinge at Sedan was protected by the weakest of the Allied armies, Huntziger's. And there was no strategic reserve.

It would seem that the Allies were one army short of what was needed to prudently undertake an advance into Belgium. But on the other hand, to not advance into Belgium would abandon the Belgian army to destruction and leave the Allies with a longer overall frontage, with the BEF's chief supply ports within range of escorted bombers.

So was this a hopeless dilemma?

Not really. Gamelin, as it turned out, expanded his Dyle Plan to include an advance of Giraud's Seventh Army into Holland--to Breda between Antwerp and Rotterdam.

This was madness. It took one of the best-equipped and most mobile French armies, and placed it out on the far flank with a major river to its rear. It abandoned the concept of shortening frontage, with a desire to link up with the Dutch, preserve Antwerp as a functioning port for the BEF, and gain a bridgehead for a putative 1941 offensive.

This was no longer the province of the defensive. This was for all intents an purposes an offensive, to be launched simultaneously with the enemy's.

There was no proper reason to plan any advance beyond Antwerp. It was a plan which did not choose and adhere to a principal objective--the defense of France. The Allies were planning on a longer war in any event, so to risk the strategic objective of defending France should not have been risked for the sake of gaining a tactical advantage of a bridgehead north of Antwerp.

The Seventh Army should have been kept in reserve, probably in the vicinity of Rheims or Laon, either of which is a good road and rail junction in the Allied centre. Even an ill-coordinated high command would have had little difficulty in committing and controlling such a reserve.

This isn't hindsight. Gamelin's plan, at least in its Breda variant, was fundamentally unsound. But he was too confident that he had guessed right, and too sanguine about the flexibility of his dispositions.

dalem
29 Jan 07,, 02:06
dalem:

I accept the criticism that the Allied command and communication structure was too cumbersome. But for the sake of argument, I'll undertake an apologia.

I believe that General Georges was in command of the operational front, and his HQ was adequately equipped. Gamelin for his part was deliberately trying to avoid interfering in the operational command, and to let his subordinates fight the battle. Gamelin was also trying to insulate the fighting commands from political meddling from above. By keeping his own HQ at arm's length, I think he was hoping to preserve his command integrity. He would make the plans, his generals would fight the battle, and the VIP's would be kept in the anteroom.

Of course, the problem was that Gamelin's battle plan was fundamentally wrong and a change could only be coordinated at the highest level, a task for which his HQ was unsuited.

But I think too much gets made of the defects of the Allied command and control problems. The real difficulty was that their battle plan set most of their armies onto the roads, at the same time, and on the first day. No matter how many radio command cars you could give Gort or Blanchard, no communication network of that time would allow an orderly rerouting and redeployment at short notice.


I honestly think that my little one-liner is a novel's worth of criticism and analysis. The French army was not ready or able to fight a modern mechanized war. Any and all of their plans would have failed for them in my opinion.

-dale

xerxes
29 Jan 07,, 03:11
If I were General Gamelin in 1940 I would immediatly turn to Lord Gort and tell him: "Mosieur le Marechall, the honor of England is at stake"



disclaimer: I am aware that Lord Gort did not held the rank of Field Marshal ;)

Bigfella
30 Jan 07,, 02:21
I think all of the contributors so far have made good points. The german success in 1940 is often viewed as inevitable. it wasn't.

Unfortunately any french commander would probably have had to advance to the Dyle. It did shorten the line, provided some natural barriers to the german advance & guaranteed Belgian support.

I would still have advanced on the Dyle, but with a mainly infantry force. Dig in & make the area a death trap for tanks - lots of mines, AT guns etc. I would then set up a second line (or at least position them at key points), and use the armour as a reserve behind them. France actually had as many armoured divisions as Germany, and on the one occasion they met at Gembloux (sic?) honours were even. Failure to properly deploy reserves was one of the keys to the French defeat. This could & should have been attended to.

The point about Gamelin having a phone is also crucial. He should have been able to keep contact with his commanders. The big problem the French had was that once the germans broke their line they could never catch up. Their tanks lacked modern communications, range & the ability to fire as well in a fluid battle. Thus, by committing them to the front so early Gamelin limited their ability to respond to any unexpected German movements. However, if they could slow the Germans they could respond in time. With their superior armour & guns, the french tanks stood a chance if they could actually get to the germans in force.

The breakthrough in the Ardennes was a lot more closely run than most people appreciate. Not only were there numerous opportunities to stop the advance, but some (especially at the river) could have brought the whole movement to a halt. It is also worth remembering that von Rundstedt was never happy about Guderian's plan. He thought the flank too vulnerable & on at least one occasion ordered him to halt. Had the advance begun to struggle he might have been more forceful.

As Gamelin I would also want a MUCH better idea of what forces were where. This relates in part to the large number of new French aircraft that remained on rear airfields during the war. France ended the war with more planes than she started with. While I would spread out my planes initially, I would heavily prepare forward aifeilds for large-scale ops. One of the reasons the germans had superior turnaround times for planes was that they had worked out this issue properly. During the course of the battle the fighter, transport & attack elements of the luftwaffe suffered heavily. With other changes, keeping up this pressure would have greatly helped.

The last element relates to morale. When the Germans did break through at the Ardennes Generals as senior as Georges literally went into a blind panic. Take control. Make 100% sure the Brits are going to hold firm. Slap a few faces. Sack one or two if needs be (though this can cause problems too) but most of all, remain calm & take the situation in hand. Things go wrong in war, panic makes it worse.

Trajan
06 Feb 07,, 22:02
Regardless of whether or not Gamlin could have created another plan, his troops were in no state of mind to fight. More french unites surrendered within the months following the initial invasion of Belgium than any time before in history. Oh, for sure they fought, but not with the single minded tenacity that the Germans did; after all, they weren't fighting for what they considered to be a long overdue revenge against an unjust Diktat that had ruined their country.

cape_royds
17 Feb 07,, 06:12
I'm not sure about that, Trajan. The French weren't stellar in 1940, but where they were in position to fight, they fought. A number of recent studies of tactical actions in May 1940 show that the French could, and did, stand and fight.

The whole art of strategy is about being in the right position to fight, in both time and space. And it was in strategy that the French got most badly beaten. It would have taken a most unusual level of tactical virtuosity to redeem the operational predicament in which they found themselves.

There were other strategic options available, which is the reason why I think the question posed in this thread is so interesting.

France simply lacked strategic depth in which to lose a major battle and recover. The Russians got beaten just as badly in 1941, but had the strategic depth in which to recover. The Germans got beaten badly in some major encirclement battles, but again they had strategic depth in which their opponents could outrun their logistics, allowing recovery.

I think one must use some caution in assessing the matter of "French will to fight in 1940." The defeat of France had major political consequences and various foreign powers and French domestic factions positioned themselves with their respective interpretations. For instance:

1. The British fortified their own morale with the line, "the French were useless." Of course, what else were the British supposed to say to themselves in their darkest hour?

2. The Germans, especially the Nazis, liked to point out the decadence and moral inferiority of the defeated French, in contrast to their own modernity and strength of will. Forward, ye ubermenschen!

3. Many French politicians and intellectuals, left and right, argued about the moral condition of their people, in order to advance ideological agendas. No major faction in France had anything to gain by simply stating that they had a bad plan and got beaten in a battle. Instead, both the left and the right, patriots and collaborators, used the 1940 defeat as a justification for their agenda for remaking the French nation, according to their respective tastes.

4. Finally, military theoreticians could not resist using the French catastrophe of 1940 as a perfect little morality play to justify their theories.

A historian of our time may agree with any or all of the above four tendencies, but he should be aware that those interpretations of the French defeat sprang in large part from contemporary political agendas.

Wraith601
17 Feb 07,, 06:23
It would have certainly helped if the French had radios in all theirr anks like the Germans and if they weren't so undermanned. French Char-Bs had a four man crew while the German Panzer IIIs and IVs had five man crews which led to a better division of labor inside the tank. Also French tanks didn't have top hatches, so the commander had to fight buttoned up and this eroded situational awareness. Finally the French dispersed their tanks too widely, the Germans could bring the wight of entire panzer divisions to bear while the French seldom had this kind of luxury. On paper the French tanks had an edge in firepower and armor protection but C3 factors and poor doctrine was their downfall.

All this has to be addressed before Gamelin has a serious chance to cahnge history.

Porky
17 Feb 07,, 06:54
I'd start by putting a telephone in my army command post.

But that's just me.

-dale

Lol. Maybe those chateaux are not wired for phone jacks, hence the motorcycle runners.