Operation “Red”

It was seventy years ago today that Germany’s “Operation Red” – the invation of France proper – began.

It took fifteen days for Germany to bring France – which a month before had been continental Europe’s greatest military power – to the armistice table.  The speed and completeness of the defeat – to say nothing of the potency of the metaphors surrounding the debacle – have combined to make “french defense” a bit of a punchline in America.

German troops entering Paris, 1940

German troops entering Paris, 1940

Let me be the first to say that in many ways, France got a very, very bad rap.

We’ll get back to that.  First, the history.

———-

There isn’t much of it.  After the French sent their best troops – including most of their armored divisions – charging into Belgium to the rescue of the Belgians and Dutch, the Germans sent the elite of their military charging through the Ardennes Forest, exactly as they had in 1871 and 1914, and exactly as they would in the winter of 1944 at the Battle of the Bulge.

German antiaircraft gun firing at French tanks

German antiaircraft gun firing at French tanks

They crossed the only real obstacle – the Meuse River – at Sedan, bringing the full weight of the blitzkrieg, Stukas and massed tanks, to bear against a French division that broke and ran – eventually, after giving two German Panzer divisions a bloody nose trying to cross the river – not so much out of “cowardice” as being grossly unprepared for what they faced.  Indeed, the French division beat back half of the German attempts to cross the river; it was the other half, and the relentless bombing, and the disruption in communication it caused, that sent them eventually running to the rear.  More on this below.

German troops crossing a pontoon bridge of the Meuse at Sedan.

German troops crossing a pontoon bridge of the Meuse at Sedan.

After Sedan, it took mere days to drive to the Channel.  This cut off the French First Army and the British Expeditionary Force, whose evacuation from Dunkirk finished seventy years ago yesterday.

That left it to the Germans to charge into the French interior and finish the game.   After their ghastly losses in the North – including all of their five armored divisions and much of the best of the French Air force – the French had 63 remaining divisions (plus one British division that’d stayed in the south) to hold a front that needed sixty of them.   The Germans destroyed the French Air Force in short order; the demoralized French gave way across the entire front;  by June 14 – in eight days – Paris fell.

German General Erwin Rommel, whose Seventh Panzer Division broke the French front at Sedan.  Rommel would go on to fame as the Desert Fox.

German General Erwin Rommel, whose Seventh Panzer Division broke the French front at Sedan. Rommel would go on to fame as the "Desert Fox".

Prime Minister Reynaud resigned rather than surrender; the French brought back eightysomething Field Marshal Petain, the great hero of the French resistance at Verdun in 1916, with the intention of signing an armistice.

Marshal Petain with Hitler at the armistice signing.

Marshal Petain with Hitler at the armistice signing.

And on June 22, at Compiegne, in the very railroad car and on the very spot where Germany had signed the armistice ending World War II, the French surrendered.

Hitler at the Eiffel Tower.

Hitler at the Eiffel Tower.

It was one of history’s great anticlimaxes.  Such an anticlimax that it’s been a punchline for seventy years now.  The French are forever tarred as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

It’s a bum rap in many ways.

———-

Myth 1:  The French were Cowards:  How many of you remember the 1970′s?

Our president had just resigned in disgrace.

Our economy was in the tank.

Worst of all, we’d lost the Vietnam War.  56,000 Americans had died for…what?  What had we gained, the question went, after that wrenching ordeal?

Between those three causes, America fell into a deep, self-questioning malaise.  Some wondered if our greatest days weren’t behind us.  Some looked at the “second world” we faced – communism – and wondered if they might not have a good point, and noted that they were at the very least here to stay.

Now, imagine what would have happened if the Soviets had (somehow – I mean, we have to suspend a bit of disbelief here) invaded Canada in about 1978.  And our Pentagon plan for an invasion of Canada called for the US to send its best troops – the Airborne, the Marines, the Second Armored, the Eleventh Cavalry, all of ‘em – charging north of the border to rescue the Canadians.

Say, then, that the Soviets had landed a huge invasion force at Seattle by complete surprise, and put their tanks on I94 and drove across the demoralized USA, sacking Chicago and driving along the south shore of the Great Lakes and down the Saint Lawrence all the way to theAtlantic, completely cutting off all those troops in Canada from food and fuel and ammunition and leaving America defended by the post-Vietnam National Guard?

It might have gone badly for us.

Now, picture a situation – a national demoralization, a malaise – 100 times worse than that.

Americans have a hard time comprehending being slaughtered en masse.  In recent memory, World War II is as close as we got – and the history that we’re told doesn’t record a lot of cases of Americans dying in droves like cannon-fodder.  The Civil War, of course.  Maybe a few debacles since then – the Volturno and Rapido rivers, the Huertgen Forest, the daylight bombing campaign of 1942 and 1943, places where Americans were killed in huge numbers for no real appreciable gain.  Our casualties were light-ish, compared to the Soviet Union (which lost over 10 million soldiers, and at least twice as many civilians, perhaps as many as half of them at Soviet hands); our nearly 400,000 dead of all causes (from combat to ruptured appendixes amounted to 6-8% of those who served.

So if you remember the national garment-rending that accompanied the 56,000 dead in Vietnam – about one in 40 of the soldiers that served there – then wrap your head around this:   in World War I, France lost 1.3 million dead and over 4 million wounded – out of a total of 8 million soldiers serving.  Nearly two out of three French soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or went missing in four years of war.

French troops at Verdun, 1916

French troops at Verdun, 1916

This crushed the generation of French that came of age before and during the war years.  And it was this generation that went on to become the nation’s middle-management, its field-grade officers, and its low-level politicians by 1940, as well as its family people.

Town of Verdun, after German artillery.

Town of Verdun, with German artillery damage.

Although not so much of that family thing.  While Americans after World War II came home victorious and spawned a baby boom, French soldiers – those that lived – came home and wondered what it was all about.  There was a huge baby bust in France in the twenties.  French society got commensurately older.  And between the destruction of much of the generation that came to middle age by the time of the war and the ravages of the Great Depression, France was beset by a malaise that made the US in the 1970′s look like an evening at Mardi Gras, as well as a relative shortage of military-age males.

French North African troops

French North African troops

As a result, France developed on the one hand a strong desire never to have it happen again.   Although there were nearly twice as many Germans as French, France mobilized fully a third of all males between ages 18 and 45, and managed to outnumber the German Wehrmacht.  They invested heavily in technology to help make that force more effective – albeit the wrong technology, in hindsight.  More below.

But  the nation was also a bit like a dog that’d been kicked too hard as a puppy.  It was deeply unwilling to go through another national bloodletting.  Politics in France was intensely divisive in the twenties and thirties, with parties of the far right and far left battling it out in a way that makes America’s current debate look downright dignifed.

Myth 2: “The Maginot Line Mentality”:   The Maginot line was a line of fortresses guarding France’s border with Germany, from the Swiss to the Belgian borders.  It’s often bandied about as an example of short-sightedness and strategic hide-boundness; the American left is fond of comparing weapons development projects as having “Maginot Line Mentality” – being expensive and yet uselessly behind the times, or havnig sapped money away from the weapons that, in hindsight, could have turned the Germans back.

All of which makes sense -  if you ignore contemporary French history.

The slaughter of World War I made a deep impression on the French psyche – and the casualties made a huge impression on the manpower available to the French military.   During the Great War, the French had suffered ghastly casualties in part due to their doctrine of “toujours l’attacque“, “always attack”.  Two years of reckless charges into the face of German artillery and machine guns forced a change in plan; the French became much more methodical, relying on heavy reinforced strongholds on defense, and tightly-coordinated attacks with artillery and tanks and infantry moving very deliberately under cover.

This philosophy carried forward as France armed itself for the next round of wars, in the ’20s and ’30s.   France created in effect two armies;  one intended to be fast, mechanized and armored, manned by the traditional Army – professional soldiers and lots of enlistees in their teens and twenties, intended to fight a combined-arms mobile war; the other with hundreds of thousands of middle-aged reservists in their thirties and forties intented to hold long stretches of the line with as little cost as possible.

And it was for that second army that the Maginot Line was built.  A long, complex chain of concrete forts and gun turrets and millions and millions of antitank obstacles and thousands of bunkers and pillboxes connected by tunnels, underground phone lines and even narrow-gauge railways, the Maginot Line was intended to make it easy for a relatively small number of middle-aged weekend warriors to hold off the German army while the first Army worked on the war-winning attack.

Artists rendering of a Maginot line fortress

Artists' rendering of a Maginot line fortress

And it worked.  The Germans had to batter their way through Belgium and the Netherlands to outflank the Line; the younger troops and tanks, the elite of the Army, got cut off and surrendered in Belgium, and only that allowed Germany to move unmolested into the heart of France without having to punch its bloody way through the Maginot Line.

Myth 3: The French weren’t ready for modern war: With their fortresses and their harkening back to the tactics of World War I’s trenches, it looks to someone looking back seventy years that France was anachronistic.

At the time, it was not true.  Indeed, in some respects France’s eagerness to modernize was its undoing.

If you work in Information Technology, you know this scenario:  when adopting new technology, companies have a choice:  Adopt the technology early, and by committing immense financial resources to the change risk having it go obsolete before too terribly long (all of you with companies still running NT4.0 servers, show of hands?), or adopt late and have a buggy, unreliable system.

France took the former route; they standardized their Army and Air Force on technology from the late twenties and early thirties, and built it in huge numbers.  And it showed; many of France’s tanks have a distinctly twenties look to them;

Knocked out French Char B tank
Knocked out French “Char B” tank

many of their fighter planes, built in the mid-thirties in the middle of a period of dizzyingly rapid aircraft development, were sixty miles per hour slower than their British and German counterparts (and the Brits, for their part, almost standardized too late; the Spitfire fighters that carried them through the war almost didn’t make it into service in time to fight).

French MS406 fighter

French MS406 fighter

But they had more tanks, and with the Brits more planes, than the Germans – and the late attempt to rectify the technology was starting to pay off; the French “Somua” tank was possibly the best in the world; the Dewoitine 520 fighter was among the best, although just coming into production.

At any rate – conventional wisdom, when it comes to history, fares about as well as it does anywhere else.

23 thoughts on “Operation “Red”

  1. Thank you Mitch, for the writing and for the research behind it that produced the wonderful photos – and thanks for not trashing the French.

  2. Mitch,

    This is the finest piece I’ve ever seen from you. This is of a calibre any paper would and should be proud to publish. You make points which I’ve made to many Franco-phobes/French denigraters for many years, and you make them better than I could have. Your analogy to the US and the 70′s is spot on (btw, also it illustrates that our problems in the 70′s hardly stemmed from Carter) – but that political quip aside – you call out the fact that in fact the French soldiers fought well, but they were impossibly outflanked, poorly lead, and were not prepared for the way in which the Germans attacked. The French suffered 100,000 casualties in those 16 days before they surrendered, fully 1/4 of what we suffered in 4 years. In total, the French suffered more casualties than the US (500k to 478) – and our population of 120M (iirc) to theirs (less than 40M) made such casualties a far higher cost. Coupled with the devestating losses of WWI, it can be understood well why the Maginot was built – the tactics worked in WWI and they could not afford those sorts of casualties again. Further, there is an old line that each war starts fighting with the last war’s tactics. This was true for us in the Civil War, it was true for us in WWI, and mostly true in WWII. Had we not been protected by an ocean, our failings in the Philipines as an example, might well have resulted in the US being given only 16 days to adapt.

    Lastly, the Brits also were horribly out of position and outflanked, yet they do not get the blame the French do, or the derision – and yet it is not far wrong to say that it was the Brits who called for French support, only to have both Army’s key troops cut-off by the move through the Ardennes. They are as much to blame for the loss of France in 1940 as were the French Generals.

    This was superior, thank you for your time and care in crafting it.

  3. Ironically, Petain — who collaborated with the the Nazi’s after the fall of France in 1940 — was credited with preventing the collapse of the French army in 1917. History has many odd twists and turns.

  4. Those French divisions left near the Ardennes were very poorly equipped as well.

    As it is, I’ve never heard anyone speak accurately about the Maginot line. The darn thing worked, the Germans just used the French strategy against them by pushing through the Ardennes.

    As it was, the bulk of the Maginot line was never tested by the Germans. I’d love to see some computer simulations on how long it would have taken the Germans to take all the fortifications and the kinds of casualties that would have been inflicted.

  5. French soldiers never really lacked courage or fighting ability. And even their equipment wasn’t half bad, as you noted.

    What killed any chance the French had were their elites and their leadership. The French had 7 months warning on how the Germans would attack. They saw the Blitzkrieg in Poland and still they couldn’t counter. They clung to tactics and strategies of WWI and kept the tanks in the infantry divisions and didn’t create the highly mobile forces needed to counter the German assault.

    In the US we’re always griping that the military is getting ready to fight the last war rather than looking to the future. The French in WWII got it exactly backwards: they had the equipment to fight the current war, but the leadership to only fight the last one.

    And as for the French leaders and elites, they’re much of the reason that the country went into a tailspin after WWI. Rather than celebrating a great victory, rather than celebrating their freedoms, rather than try to rally their nation to greatness and a brighter future, they went morose and mourned the fact that in defending themselves and their freedoms they had suffered greatly. It colored what they thought they could do and stifled their ability to prevent the rise of Nazism.

    Our elites tried to do a similar thing to the US after Vietnam and Watergate and the ruinous liberal economic policies of Johnson and Nixon. They foisted Carter off on us, and when those same liberal elites found that more of the same failed policies didn’t work, they tried to convince America that we were through. The funny thing is, America didn’t believe it, kicked out Carter, and began a transformation where for many years those elites were marginalized.

  6. As it is, I’ve never heard anyone speak accurately about the Maginot line. The darn thing worked, the Germans just used the French strategy against them by pushing through the Ardennes.

    It worked throughout the war. The Allies fared little better against it in 1944, with the 3rd and 7th Armies often having a devil of a time against what was a lightly defended, unfavored German possession.

    Quoting: Most of the Maginot Line forts were captured by the U.S. Army with little or no fighting required. For the most part, the Germans chose not to and/or were unable to mount an effective defense of the fortifications. However there were several notable occasions when the Germans had both the means and the will to mount an effective defense. On these occasions, the thick fortifications combined with determined defenders made the capture of the Maginot Line forts a difficult and time-consuming affair for the U.S. Army.

    And remember, the US was assaulting those fortifications from the rear and after they had been pretty much stripped of armaments for the Atlantic Wall and left in disrepair for years.

    So the Maginot line was a technological success. But the lack of vision, poor tactics and worse strategy doomed the French when they didn’t anticipate or plan well for the Blitzkrieg tactics and invasion of the Low Countries. It’s too bad the fabled innovative and efficient French staff work of the Napoleonic era had given way to the fossilized French military of the early 20th Century.

  7. But, Nerdbert! The Nazi’s were extreme conservatives! And the French were socialists! There was no way the Nazi’s could have could have come up with the blitzkrieg!
    Seriously, Nerdbert, The Germans knew — the smart Germans, anyhow, that in 1914, when they failed to take Paris & force a French surrender before the Russians mobilized, the war was lost. In 1940 it must have seemed to the Germans that the French surrender was a validation of the regime. Hitler and the Nazis had done what Ludendorf & the Prussian aristocracy could not.

  8. WW2 changed the world political landscape but it did not bring in a new age. World War One did. Here is a quote from a memoir called In the Claws of the German Eagle by an American journalist caught in Europe when the war broke out:

    We were with Consul van Hee one morning early before the
    clinging veil of sleep had lifted from our spirits or the mists from the
    low-lying meadows. Without warning our car shot through a bank
    of fog into a spectacle of medieval splendor–a veritable Field of
    the Cloth of Gold, spread out on the green plains of Flanders.

    A thousand horses strained at their bridles while their thousand
    riders in great fur busbies loomed up almost like giants. A
    thousand pennons stirred in the morning air while the sun burning
    through the mists glinted on the tips of as many lances. The crack
    Belgian cavalry divisions had been gathered here just behind the
    firing-lines in readiness for a sortie; the Lancers in their cherry and
    green and the Guides in their blue and gold making a blaze of
    color.

    It was as if in a trance we had been carried back to a tourney of
    ancient chivalry–this was before privations and the new drab
    uniforms had taken all glamour out of the war. As we gazed upon
    the glittering spectacle the order from the commander came to us:

    “Back, back out of danger!”

    “Forward!” was the charge to the Lancers.

    The field-guns rumbled into line and each rider unslung his
    carbine. Putting spurs to the horses, the whole line rode past
    saluting our Stars and Stripes with a “Vive L’Amerique.” Bringing
    up the rear two cassocked priests served to give this pageantry a
    touch of prophetic grimness.

  9. I read a fascinating article that I can’t find now about how many young British men died during WWI. The hook of the article was that a girl’s school in England had an assembly in 1917, where the headmistress told the girls that nine out of ten of them would never marry, as their husbands-to-be were now dead in France. They would have to make their own way in the world.

    Imagine that. Nine out of ten! And it happened exactly that way. Nine of ten girls of that class didn’t get married. They had to forge careers for themselves in a world that was much more hostile to women working.

    Americans sometimes wonder why Europe is inclined to keep their heads down when it comes to world conflicts.

  10. Gordon, I think it could be said that Europe learned a few lessons the hard way about world conflicts. It also explains NATO, and the EU, a bit as well.

  11. Terry, have you ever read Castles of Steel by Robert Massie? It’s a fascinating account of WWI at sea, but it also covers a lot of the strategy and personalities that went behind the tactics of the German state, including the calculus that was the German attempt at a submarine blockade and how that was forced upon the Germans by their agricultural needs when the German offensive failed to capture Paris. I highly recommend it. It’s a followup to Dreadnought about the naval revolution just before WWI which also covers the complicated internal continental politics and the “colorful” personalities like Jackie Fisher. Both are good but can get dry in spots if you’re into just the military strategy without the political background that shaped those strategies.

    Apropos nothing other than the mention of Telemark a while back, I’ll mention that The Heroes of Telemark finally came from Netflix. The popcorn is warming up, and while IMDB gives it a firm thumbs down for historical accuracy it looks like if you don’t know the history it could be at least average entertainment. I wonder if the popcorn will be on the screen or on me at the end?

  12. But DG, the question is did Europe learn the right lessons about world conflicts? Had Europe learned that to prevent massive wars totalitarian despots must be stopped early we wouldn’t have had WWII. And without European reluctance to confront totalitarianism would the Cold War have been longer or shorter?

  13. Nerdbert, the last book about WW1 that I actually paid for was Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. It’s a rarity, a memoir by a Prussian trench officer on the Western Front. Junger was not quite anti-war, though much of what he witnessed disgusted him as waste of men and material. Junger’s book gives you a different perspective than Robt. Graves Goodbye to All That.
    I’ve never had much interest in WW1 naval action, other than the snafus that led to the Turks allying themselves with the Germans & so being able to blockade Russia’s Black Sea ports. That single mistake may have launched the modern world, since the direct result was Gallipoli and the indirect result was the collapse of Czarist Russia.
    Lately I’ve been working my way through Gutenburg’s “World War One Bookshelf” http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/World_War_I_(Bookshelf). Lots of memoirs. I particularly recommend “Warbirds:Diary of an unknown Aviator” (http://manybooks.net/titles/anonymousother100701101.html). It was published years before “A Farewell to Arms”, but it is more Hemingway than Hemingway.

  14. Very thoughtful post, Mitch. Very un-conservative of you. More typical is Terry’s non-sequitur:

    “But, Nerdbert! The Nazi’s were extreme conservatives! And the French were socialists! There was no way the Nazi’s could have could have come up with the blitzkrieg!”

    Still, the French reputation rests on more than a single campaign. The shameful record of France under occupation, particularly with regard to the deportation of Jews; colonial defeats in Algeria and Indochina and, perhaps more than anything, decades of anti-American douchebaggery on the world stage – all of these contribute to anti-French prejudice in the U.S. and Britain. Plus there’s the funny accent.

  15. Yes, the Turks got stabbed in the back by the Brits, but the Brits didn’t have too much choice about absconding with the Turk’s battleships at the start of the war. Still, the manner in which it was done was very poorly handled and turned what could have been an ally or at least neutral into an antagonist.

    But the Brits pretty much totally mismanaged the Turks throughout the war. The Gallipolli campaign at all levels in particular. Massie covers it pretty well in his book, including some very savage and well deserved attacks on the young Churchill about his management of the whole affair and region.

  16. I believe the first use of concentration camps was by the British in S Africa during the Boer War. The Brits were also the first to use poison gas during WW1.
    I’m glad we were on the side of the Good Guys.

  17. Myth #4: There’s no evidence backing the story that when the German columns arrived at Sedan a Frenchman, cloth towel on his arm, asked the leader of the column “Will that be a table for 100,000 Sir?”

  18. What nerdbert said.

    More generally: if you’re going to use a bucket with a hole to carry water, you really gotta do something about the hole. Line defenses — whether it’s Maginot, Siegfried, or Bar-Lev — can be tough, but they’re fragile, and when they fail, they fail horribly. The argument that the Line forced the Germans to swing through Belgium is correct, and the Line did free other forces that would have had to been held in reserve for another attack, but the failure to capitalize on it was, well, a failure. In the interim between the two wars, after all, the Germans had been reading their Hart and Fuller, and the French hadn’t.

    Which is why the French really weren’t ready for modern war. Yes, at least arguably, their tanks were better than the Germans’ — and, yup, they had more of them.

    But the killer app was the radio.

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