Most of the English language accounts of the fighting in the Low Countries and France in 1940 that I have read focus on the actions of the BEF, along with the Belgians and those parts of the French army that were involved in the fighting in the north. Once the Germans break the French lines at Sedan actions to the south of the breakthrough are largely ignored, apart from those attempts to organise counterattacks north, and the focus is almost entirely on the action to the north of the German advances. The details of the fighting in the period after Dunkirk are often almost ignored, although the idea of creating a series of fortified strong points and attempting to hold out on Somme are normally mentioned. This book has two main aims – first to provide a detailed account of that second phase of the campaign – the French attempts to defend the Somme and Case Red, the German plan of attack and second to produce an explanation of why the French and their allies were so quickly defeated in 1940.
There are areas where we get contradictory criticisms. This starts in the introduction, where on one page the French are criticised for spending money on their navy which didn’t ‘draw blood’, but a page or two later other historians are being criticized for ignoring the shore bombardments and the contribution of Naval aviation! This leads into one more general comment, which is that many of Forczyk’s criticisms are only valid if British and French only had one potential enemy – Germany. In neither case was that true – indeed for much of the interwar period Germany wasn’t the most obvious threat. With the benefit of hindsight one can say that both powers should have focused on weapons and equipment that would have been useful in a land war against Germany in 1939-40, but that would have been a major gamble to take in 1932!
I don’t think Forczyk gives the British an entirely fair portrayal view. In sections we get a repeat of the ‘everything was wrong’ approach that appeared in the introduction, with the British seen as being at fault because of the small size of the initial BEF, and at fault for sending reinforcements across to France. When General Alan Brooke went to France as commander of the 2nd BEF he found a situation on the verge of collapse, with a victorious Germany army about to launch the attack that caused the final French collapse so his emphasis on saving as many men as possible is credible. One can argue that if the RAF had committed more fully to supporting the 1st BEF, and had sent Spitfires to France before the initial German attack then that might have made a difference, but to argue here that sending them to France in June 1940 might have inflicted so much damage on the Luftwaffe that there might have been no need to fight a battle of Britain is ridiculous. Earlier in the text it has already been established that the Allied air forces in France didn’t have as good as command and control system as Fighter Command had in Britain, so the far more likely result is that any Spitfires sent to France would have been lost, and probably without achieving anything of significance.
I also don’t think that the Germans get quite enough credit for their own victory. A key part of their success in 1940 was that they had a plan that took advantage of the most likely Allied actions when the campaign began, hit a weak spot in the French lines, and then exploited their success so quickly that the British and French were never quite able to catch up.
Having said all of this, I still like this book. As the author says, very few English language histories of the war dedicate much space to this second phase of the campaign in the west. The Weygand Line and the idea of a line of ‘hedgehogs’, or fortified points, is often mentioned, but with very little detail given. Even the fairly minor British involvement is rarely covered apart from the final evacuations. French politics, and the details of the actions of the French high command are normally seen from a British point of view. In contrast the focus here is on the French side, so we see the debates between the French commanders and political leaders, the actions of French units away from the areas that directly involved the BEF or the key breakthrough etc. This includes the fighting along the Maginot Line, starting with the fighting on its northern end which was part of the main battle and including the pointless and costly German attack late in the campaign.
Although the official focus is on the second part of the campaign, the German attack on the French line on the Somme and the eventual collapse of France, this actually takes up just under half of the book, including a chapter on the French attempts to eliminate any German bridgeheads over the Somme before the start of Case Red. This second stage of the campaign was almost entirely unfamiliar to me, so this detailed account of it is of great value. The author provides many examples of French units who fought with great skill and determination, but also many cases of poor leadership. He is especially hostile to Weygand, who once the Somme line had been broken undermined his own government’s attempts to resist for longer, and who undermined Prime Minster Reynaud, whose resignation ended any chance that the French government would fight on from exile (France and Denmark were the only conquered nations in western Europe whose governments didn’t escape and fight on).
Overall I found this to be a very valuable book, providing a detailed account of an important and often overlooked campaign, as well as much more detail of the French role in the initial fighting in May 1940.
1 – The Path of Disaster
2 – A Shadow of Doubt
3 – The Centre Cannot Hold
4 – To the Sea
5 – Failure at Abbeville
6 – The Weygand Line
7 – Decision on the Aisne
8 – Disintegration
9 – Mussolini’s Gamble
10 – Occupation
Author: Robert Forczyk