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German Blitzkrieg

This was a classic example of the sort of campaign the Axis wanted: short and decisive, ending with the destruction of a sizableopposing army. With the East secured, Germany turned to the West. Although Hitler had no great desire to war with Britain and France, it was necessary to secure the West in order to continue with his main ambition, the defeat of the Soviet Union, and the depopulation and repopulation of the Ukraine. To secure the North, Hitler took Denmark and Norway, suffering heavy naval losses in the latter campaign.

It was time to move against France. The French Army was large, if smaller than the German, and generally well-equipped. A French infantry division was, on the face of it, about a match for a German infantry division. Tanks were a different matter; French tanks, although large and well-armed, were poorly designed. They lacked radios, were often slow, and the commander had to load and fire the main gun. Not having unit radionets, or even a commander able to concentrate on the situation, French tanks did not act well in concert.

The tactical doctrine was also ineffective. German tanks had radios, were reasonably fast, and had commanders without other duties, while German tactics were excellent. Although the German Army was mostly infantry, there were a couple of dozen armored and otherwise mobile divisions that could be used with great effect. Perhaps the greatest difference was the air forces. The German Luftwaffe was well-equipped to cooperate with the army. The fighters were well-armed and fast, if short-ranged, and the bombers were generally ood.

German command, organization, and maintenance were all good. The French Armee l’Air was in considerably worse shape. All air forces of the time experienced a maintenance crisis in the transition from the lower-performance biplanes of the 1930s to the low-wing powerful monoplanes that dominated the Second World War. Some countries, like Germany and Britain, had already worked through this, but the French were in the middle of it. Further, French fighter aircraft were considerably inferior to the German.

France was changing, though. New, high-performance aircraft, comparable to anything the Germans had, were in production, and it would not be long before new maintenance procedures were worked out. The British would provide support, but in limited amounts. The British Army was smaller although better, and the British had plan nedto have twenty-five divisions in action by 1941. British armoured forces were badly organized and suffered from continuing the social traditions of the cavalry, but the tanks were generally good.

The Royal Air Force was intermediate between the French and German, being closer to the German in fighter quality (if not bomber quality) and having solved the maintenance problem. One problem Britain faced was that of providing for home defense. The more force sent to France, the more danger Britain itself was in if France should collapse; on the other hand, the less force sent, the worse for France, and the greater danger of French collapse. Britain sent most of the available land forces to France, and much of the air force, but kept the best aircraft in the home islands.

The French hoped to compensate for the weaknesses of their army with the Maginot Line, a strong line of fortresses along the German border that could be held with a lesser number of lower-quality troops, freeing the larger and better part of the army to dealwith other problems, such as a German drive through Belgium. The French also considered part of their border with Belgium to be covered by the “impassible” Ardennes forest, and that was their fatal mistake.

The Allied plan was to wait for the Germans to attack Belgium, and then advance into it with the British and the highest-quality French forces. The Maginot Line was correctly considered safe, although the French stationed a disproportionate amount of troops in and behind it, and remained sensitive to its safety throughout the campaign. (The whole reason for having such fortificationsshould be to save fighting forces for use elsewhere, and trust it to save itself. ) was correctly considered safe.

The middle part of the French border was incorrectly considered safe, and received fewer and worse troops than the Maginot Line itself! The original German plan had been to fight through Belgium, much as they did in World War I, but this plan was compromised when a courier fell into Allied hands, and they adopted a main attack through the Ardennes and the middle of the Allied lines. Since this was by far the weakest part of the Allied lines, it would land with devastating effect. It is difficult to understand the French decisions.

The Ardennes is very good defensive terrain, but it is passable. There are quite a few small towns connected with a reasonable road net. The rivers are major obstacles, being unfordable with steep banks, but this is not a problem if the existing bridges can be used. While these can be blown up, and there are frequent good ambush positions, none of this matters without opposition. The strategic lessonis that, except in extreme cases, terrain by itself does not block enemy movement, although certain terrain is easy to defend. Given this setup, the inevitable happened.

While the German right flank conquered the Netherlands and engaged the cream of the Allied troops in Belgium, and the German left did little against the Maginot Line, the German center broke through and exploited to the Atlantic. It was a long and thin penetration, but very disruptive, and French command and control abilities were not able tostabilize the situation. Later in the war, it became known that the correct defensive response is to hold firm and try to cut off and destroy the exploiting units, but the daring blitzkrieg worked this time.

Most of the British troops were evacuated from Dunquerque,as were some of the French, but they had to abandon their heavy equipment. This left France far weaker, with a long ramshackle front formed from whatever they could scrape up, and the final conquest came soon. It is tempting to ask what else could have happened, perhaps if the Germans had followed their original plan or if the French had held the Ardennes in strength. Many people had thought that, given the swift collapse, that Germany would have had to win anyway.

Some people have said that the original plan would have been more successful, that the main German striking forces would have defeated the British and French in Belgium, and by pushing hard would not have allowed them to get away. This doesn’t seemobvious to me. A direct attack into the enemy strength is almost never a good idea. While the German Army would likely have woneventually, it would have been a slow, expensive, and incomplete victory, and might not have pushed far into France.

Similarly, if the middle offensive had met stiff resistance, it might not have broken through before the French could reinforce, and the Allies might ave held all of France and large sections of Belgium. Time was not on the side of the Germans, as the quality of the Allied air forces was improving rapidly, and the ground forces at least improving. Had France held into 1941, the Allies would doubtless have had air superiority and some superiority on the ground, and Germany would be in serious danger. I think the fall of France was one of the great events of the war, even if it did not change the eventual outcome.

This left Germany with one remaining active enemy, Britain. The Royal Army had been seriously hurt in the battle for France, and hadlost most of its heavy equipment, including tanks, anti-tank guns, and artillery. British factories were frantically making more, but it would take time. Fortunately, they had a little time. In all of the planning the German General Staff had done, it had not considered thepossibility that France might fall so fast, and there were no plans to attempt a landing in Britain.

By the time such plans could bemade, the British were a bit more prepared, although still in a potentially desperate situation. The British were in very bad shape on the ground, and outnumbered in the air, but any invasion would have to cross the English Channel despite the Royal Navy. The German Kriegsmarine had never been large, and had suffered heavy losses in the Norway campaign. It had no hope of successfully opposing even a fraction of the British Home Fleet. In order to get troops across the Channel, it would be necessary for the Luftwaffe to keep the Royal Navy from interfering.

In order to do that, it first had to defeat the Royal Air Force. An invasion would be chancy even then, as the Royal Navy would certainly have attempted to break it up despi teany amount of German bombers, and would certainly have bombarded the German positions at night when the Luftwaffe was grounded. This was the first campaign of the war where the Germans were unable to use their superb mobile divisions from the start. Until a sizable landing could be made in England, it would be an air campaign. In this, the British had several advantages to offset their numerical inferiority.

First, British fighter production was actually greater than German, so the British would have no shortage of good fighter aircraft. Had the two sides started at parity, and had they had sufficient pilots available, the Germans would have been outnumbered. The Germans started with more, and the British became desperately short of fighter pilots, but the potential was there and important. Second, the battles were usually fought over Britain, so that a British pilot who had to bail out might return to action, while a German pilot would become a prisoner of war. This gave the British some advantage in attrition.

Third, the British had an excellent air defense system, including radar stations to warn of incoming raids. Fourth, the Luftwaffe had been designed to assist the Army, not to conduct independent operations. The fighters were short-ranged, and the bombers were not really able to operate outside fighter cover. Further, they were designed to deliver small bombloads accurately, rather than to carry large bombloads. Fifth, and most important, the Germans really didn’t know what they were doing, and had no way of finding out. Nobody had ever fought such a battle before, and nobody had a clear idea for victory.

Nor could the Luftwaffe know what was going on in Britain. Not knowing what the best targets were, the Luftwaffe attacked three sorts of targets in turn. The first was the radar stations along the coast, which did useful damage. One problem they faced was that it was easiest to destroy the receivers, which made the radar stations ineffective, but it was difficult to tell that that had been done. Several times, the British kept the transmitters going uselessly, so that the Germans could not tell whether the British radar was working or not. The second was Fighter Command itself.

The Germans attacked airbases and other vital installations, which the British fighters had to defend to preserve their own effectiveness. With numerical superiority and initiative, the Luftwaffe nearly defeated the Royal Air Force. The British were considering withdrawing their aircraft from the South of England to safe havens in the North, and staging them to whatever airfields remained when the Germans invaded. The Germans did not know that, and made a bad decision. Some German bombers attacking the London docks at night strayed from course, and dropped their bombs over the residential areas.

Angry, the British Bomber Command bombed residential areas of German cities. The Luftwaffe, not knowing how close to victory they were, started bombing British cities. This gave Fighter Command a respite, since their bases were no longer under attack, and since they could afford to intercept city-bombing missions or not, depending on conditions. While it was certainly not traditional to allow civilians to take damage to spare the fighting forces, that was the result, and Fighter Command survived, and Britain was not invaded.

This left Germany with a permanent difficulty. A conquest of Great Britain would have left Germany with distant enemies, of no great importance. As long as Britain was free, it could serve as a base to maintain a naval blockade, launch bombers, support resistance movements, and even invade the continent. Given some time to recover from the disaster in France, the Royal Army would be able to stop invasions. Given some time to recover from the battle over Britain, the Royal Air Force would be able to dominate the skies over and near Britain.

The chance of defeating Britain by invasion had come and gone, and Germany would simply have to stand off the British and aim for a peace by exhaustion. After all, the British Empire was stretched thin. Italy had entered the war to grab some of the glory of conquering France, and France had left the war. The remaining portions of France were run by the Vichy government, which was seen as pro-Axis. The French navy was under government control, and the British feared that it might be turned over to the Germans.

The British resorted to attacking French ships, when they refused to surrender or be interned. In fact, the French naval commanders were not going to let that happen, and Vichy France was acting pro-Axis largely because Germany, having imposed a very harsh peace settlement, had potential favors, such as the return of prisoners. Further, some French forces and colonies had declared that they were still at war with Germany, and the Vichy government disavowed these “Free French” as traitors, which they arguably were.

Since the British were attacking French ships, and at times taking over French possessions, and supporting French traitors, the British and Vichy French governments were not going to get along. In the meantime, the Pacific was getting more and more tense. Japan put pressure on the Vichy government to allow its occupation of northern Indochina, nominally to continue the encirclement of China, but then occupied the southern half, which would only be useful to expand the war.

The Americans continued to tighten sanctions, and were in a position to force Japan to choose between making peace and finding new sources for natural resources. Finally, the fall of France made the battle of the Atlantic much more important. In World War I, the Germans had used their submarines, called U-boats, to much effect in preying on Allied shipping. The Germans intended to repeat this, in the hope of strangling Britain, which was vitally dependent on its shipping. At first, they achieved little real success.

The invasions of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands left the British in control of many more merchant ships than they had started with, and the initial German offensives had been ineffectual, due to defective torpedos and the lack of convenient bases. With the fall of France, the Germans were able to establish U-boat bases on the Atlantic out of range of convenient British patrols, and they soon remedied their torpedo designs. The Battle of the Atlantic was on in earnest. Neither side was as prepared as it would like to be.

The German Navy had far fewer submarines than they considered requisite for this sort of campaign, while the British were short of small escort ships, and their anti-submarine weapons did not work as well as hoped. The British soon instituted convoys as a defensive measure. On the ocean, a convoy is no easier to find than a lone ship, it can be defended, and it is usually not possible to sink the bulk of a convoy once it is found. The disadvantage is that ships wait idle to join a convoy, and when a convoy arrives at a port it will likely exceed the handling capacity of the port, so that ships are used inefficiently.

One further advantage of convoys is that they allow the defending warships to fight the submarines, which can otherwise avoid combat at will. Moreover, the submarines that are sunk in convoy battles are usually the more aggressive and daring ones, which are also the ones that sink the most merchant ships, so that the remaining U-boats are a lesser threat. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted all war, in various forms, and both sides demonstrated great ingenuity. The Allies improved their sonar, and developed several new weapons against submarines, including homing torpedoes.

They also were adept at detecting and locating German radio transmissions. The main patrolling weapon against submarines was the bomber, since it could move fast and was reasonably good at detecting surfaced submarines (submarines of this period had to travel on the surface, although they could lurk underwater for long periods of time). The Germans adopted effective tactics to attack convoys, and gave radar detectors to their subs so they could evade Allied bombers by submerging. The Germans seemed closest to victory in early 1943.

After this, the Allies ad enough small warships to escort convoys as they liked, frequently with small aircraft carriers, and the Germans never recovered. They planned to introduce a new generation of submarines that could operate successfully underwater, but Germany was conquered before they could manage this. The strategic impact is mixed. It was basically an attrition campaign, which normally would favor the Allies, but it was, at first, a very economical one for the Germans. It also had decisive potential, in that an effective campaign could force Great Britain out of the war.

It was not well-coordinated, though, since during its greatest impact the Axis was not threatening Great Britain at all, and so its impact would be defensive at best. It may have been worth it, since the attrition ratio was extremely favorable to the Axis, either in shipping destroyed or Allied forces tied up in convoy defense. It would have been worth it if properly conducted, with the intent of either attaining the most effective attrition ratio or delivering a knockout blow to Britain. As 1940 ended, the Germans dominated the continent of Europe.

They had conquered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Italy had joined them as an ally, while Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary would do so shortly. Spain was a friendly neutral, although not intending to go to war. Sweden and Switzerland were cooperative, if hardly friendly. However, Britain had survived, and would continue to do so. The Japanese had conquered pretty much all they wanted of China, but needed more resources. The United States was becoming increasingly concerned, and was starting to join in the Battle of the Atlantic as a quasi-belligerent.

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