Thursday, May 13, 2010

In 1940 things went down hill fast

A French Somua tank at the museum at Aberdeen

By following along on the anniversary events of major episode such as the 1940 campaign, I think it helps capture some aspects of it that reading a history can obscure. A historian naturally attempts to create a narrative about an event, selecting which stories to tell and sometimes, for the sake of keeping the narrative clear, the time element can be lost. It's easy, for example, to skip over long periods where nothing that turned out to be important happened, but of course the participants experienced those days as being just as long as the important ones.

A little less common, but still occurring on occasion is a narrative that is so dense with detail that it can obscure that the event it describes happened over a short period of time and was therefore even more shocking to those who lived through it than a history might easily convey.

The campaign in France is that sort of event. From September 1939 until the first week of May, 1940, a period of more than eight months, very little happened on the western front between Germany and the Allies. There was some action at sea, and towards the end of the period things heated up in Norway, but compared to what followed, the Phony War period was really remarkable for its lack of action. By way of comparison, in 1944, eight months of campaigning in the West brought the Allies from Normandy to the Rhine.

But in the second week of May, 1940, the situation in the West was transformed in a week of fighting. Within days the Allied position was already facing disaster. There's some debate over the term Blitzkrieg and whether it represents an actual German military doctrine, but the term originated as newspaper shorthand to describe the shocking speed at which warfare occurred in 1939 and in 1940. There was, of course, some foreshadowing of the Blitzkrieg in Poland, where another large army was destroyed in mere days, but it was easy for the Western powers to discount that as an anomaly. The French and British armies were far better equipped than the Poles and had a much better defensive configuration than Poland as well. Poland was, essentially, indefensible from a military standpoint.

On today's date, 70 years ago, just a few days after the opening of hostilities, the German armored spearheads were already poised to burst through the French defenses. Before another week was out the Allies were facing a crisis.

Whether or not Blitzkrieg formed a formal doctrine of any sort, the German campaign definitely had the psychological effect of a "bolt form the blue" that shocked observers worldwide. It spurred the U.S., for example, to start a huge military buildup unprecedented in "peacetime" that included mobilizing a large part of the National Guard for a year's worth of training. Would a more conventionally paced campaign in 1940 have prompted the same, even if it had ended up in a French defeat? If the Germans had taken six or seven months to finish off France it would have been a much more sobering experience for them as well and Hitler might have been slower to turn on the Soviets. His ideology demanded an eventual showdown with the Communists, but there was no reason why it had to be in 1941 and there were very good reasons to think that waiting a couple of more years would have increased German strength relative to the Soviets.

I think the 1940 campaign's speed of decision is it's most important aspect. It's not that France lost, but that it lost so quickly, that it reverberated. Following along day-by-day helps drive home that speed.

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